by Roger Sauvë, People Patterns Consulting

We all seem to acknowledge the fact that the job market is filled with change and uncertainty. We can put forth all kinds of great statistics and trends to prove our point … I actually do this for a living. Career development practitioners and career counsellors provide one-on-one personal advice on what this all means. This is all good and necessary stuff to help make short and long-term job related decisions. This is not enough.

Why? We often fail to appreciate the impact that these changes are having on the home front, and even more, we neglect the ways in which the changing family is affecting the places where we work. Balancing the needs of the changing workplace together with the needs of changing families is a growing challenge. This task is most daunting for women. The percentage of women in the paid labour force is now at an all-time high, regardless of marital status or the presence of children. The percentage of couples with at least two earners is also at record levels. Men might, but do relatively little, of the tough balancing.

At present, almost two-thirds of the workforce is comprised of couples and about half of the workforce is made up of parents with children at home. Each day, spouses and single parents are making quick short-term decisions about the relative importance of their children, families and workplaces. In time, the short-term decisions have a long-term impact on worker productivity, job advancement, personal satisfaction and wealth accumulation.

Let’s not deceive ourselves … women still bear the major responsibility for the work-home balance. For mothers, it shows up in the types of jobs they take, the jobs they quit, the jobs they want but don’t apply for and in the number of days of skipped work. Women are much more likely than men to place a higher priority on the family rather than the workplace. Among lone-parents, the choices are more stressful.

In providing this work-home balance, men have “not come a long way” … it seems that men go to work no matter what the age of their children. This may be just a bit of an exaggeration but the statement is a close reflection of the reality. Regardless of the age of the couples, it is mostly the wives who are doing most of the juggling. The reality could be caused by inertia, by deliberate choices among couples or because of pressure by employers.

According to the latest Census, some 71% of wives with children aged 0-5 are in the labour force … a much higher 94% of their husbands are in the labour force. About 76% of wives with children aged 6-14 are in the labour force, while the same 94% of their husbands are in the labour force. There is more. Based on the Labour Force Survey, about 27% of wives with children work part-time while only 4% of husbands with children do so. Of those wives who work part-time, almost half do so to care for their children or family … a grand total of 7% of men who work part-time do so to care for their children or family. In a typical week, about 5% of women are away from work for personal and family reasons compared to about 2% for men. The ratio for men is up but still at the rate it was for women some three decades earlier. Of all wives with children who quit their jobs, about 40% quit for personal and family reasons … among husbands with children who quit their jobs, only 5% do so for personal and family reasons. Just one more! About 40% of wives who actually want to work outside the home are not looking because of personal and family reasons.

And so what?

As counsellors, are you talking to men and women about this rather one-sided and rather immovable work-home reality? Should career discussions involve couples and not just individuals? Are you really telling employers about the reality that women with children are indeed different from men when it comes to the work-home balance equation and that their policies should reflect this reality?

There are several negative consequences of the inability to find the proper balance between work and home.

  • In aggregate, “severe’ stress is increasing for wives, husbands and lone-parents.
  • According to the latest (still only 1998) stress estimates from Statistics Canada, the percentage of parents with children who suffer from “severe” stress, when a couple shifts from being a one-earner family to being a two-earner family, jumps up significantly for wives while it does not change one iota for men.
  • Many women, especially young women with children, accept lower paying jobs to find the work-home balance that they can live with. In time, many end up in long-term lower paying jobs and occupations than their abilities and education qualifies them for. Frequent family break-ups (about 40% of couples will divorce and even more among those living common-law) put women at a disadvantage that is often permanent. According to the latest Census, there are about 800,000 women in Canada who work for a full-year at a full-time job who earn less than $20,000, which places them in the low-income (poverty) territory.
  • Employers face unplanned work absences with additional costs and disruptions. Employers may begin to feel resentful rather than accepting the work-home problems faced by families, especially women with children. This may lead to sexual discrimination or outright firings rather than compassion.

Families are important to people. Families must be important to employers.

Roger Sauvë is President of People Patterns Consulting located in Sooke, BC. Roger writes and publishes reports on social, economic, labour market and demographic trends and projections. He can be reached at