Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Deidre Wicks, Gita Mishra and Lisa Milne (2002) 'Young Women, Work and Inequality: Is It What They Want or What They Get? An Australian contribution to research on women and workforce participation'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 3, <>

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Received: 27/9/2002      Accepted: 26/9/2002      Published: 22/10/2002


The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women's Health was established to track the health of three age cohorts of Australian women - 40,000 in total - over a twenty year period. It provides opportunities for research into health and related issues for women. In this paper, we investigate (1) baseline data from the young cohort of 1400 survey participants and (2) follow up in-depth interview data from a small sample of 57 of the original respondents. The focus of the paper is on the aspirations of young women (aged 18-23) for work, their ideal job, relationships (including children) and further education, particularly in the context of gender inequality in labour markets.Through an analysis of the data, we look at the extent to which gender inequalities are the result of free choices and preferences and to what extent they are conditioned by socio-economic structures and processes that reproduce inequalities over time. This issue is further explored through a classification of women by socio- economic status. In this way, we can analyse the gender dimension of labour market inequality in general as well as the relationship of gender inequality to class inequality in the areas of work, work choice and the ability to combine work and family responsibilities.Analysis of the two data sets sheds light on debates about women's workforce participation as well as establishing baseline data for future research on the options chosen and available for this group of young women. The results will have significance for policy debates in several areas, including those concerned with worker entitlements, childcare, access to higher education and workforce planning. More particularly, it makes a significant contribution to the current debate, initiated by Catherine Hakim, about women's supposed preference for part-time rather than full-time work.



The aim of this chapter is to investigate the aspirations of young women in relation to work, education and relationships, and to explore the implications of their stated aspirations for our understanding of labour market segmentation in Australia and elsewhere. By labour market segmentation, we refer to the well researched fact that labour markets are invariably segmented along a number of axes (such as race, class and gender) and that labour markets segmented by gender result in women being concentrated in a narrow range of jobs which are characterised by low pay, high turnover, insecurity, a high incidence of part-time and casual work and little autonomy over the work itself (Connell, 1987; Baxter and Gibson, 1990; Edwards and Magarey, 1995; Crompton and Harris, 1998; Jacobs, 1999). More particularly, this chapter seeks, through data analysis of a large cohort of young women, to challenge the validity of a recently developed theory, known as Preference Theory, which seeks to explain labour market segmentation in terms of the aspirations and choices of women themselves, rather than the result of social structures such as class and gender (Hakim, 2000).

Preference Theory constitutes one side of a current and important debate which can be characterised broadly by the questions: Are part-time and casual jobs in particular industries freely chosen by women because of their lack of commitment to paid work and their stronger commitment to home and family (Hakim, 1991; 1993; 1995; 1996; 2000); or, are there structural forces at work which shape and constrain women's choices (Bruegel, 1996; Proctor and Padfield, 1999; Walsh, 1999; Looker and Magee, 2000)? This is an important debate with obvious implications for policy- making across many areas. Through the various permutations of her contributions, Hakim's resultant Preference Theory marks a departure from both the more familiar explanations grounded in human capital theory (Becker, 1985) and the contributions from the feminist sociology of work. At the core of Preference Theory lies the concept of the heterogeneity of women (Hakim, 2000: 41).

This idea has two main aspects to it. The first is that women (unlike men) have a choice as to whether their main activity in life is to be a career or homemaking. Second, the basis of the choice is long-term work orientation and commitment, which come into play early in the life cycle of women. These orientations result in women dividing into three groups that, according to Hakim, are not only qualitatively different but also have conflicting interests (Hakim 2000: 156). The three groups are:

  1. Home-centred (20 per cent of women but may vary 10 per cent - 30 per cent)
  2. Adaptive (60 per cent of women but may vary 40 per cent - 80 per cent)
  3. Work-centred (20 per cent of women but may vary 10 per cent - 30 per cent)

Hakim argues that while human capital theorists have failed to explain how and why women (and men) end up making the choices they do, sociological theory (including feminist theory) has offered 'almost nothing at all to explain sex differences in labour market participation and outcomes apart from the blanket concept of sex discrimination and facile references to sex-role stereotypes and to cultural or institutional constraints' (2000:29). This would seem to be a harsh, and, it has been argued, an inaccurate judgement, but it must also be acknowledged that Hakim has amassed and analysed an enormous amount of existing data in the development of her alternative analytical and theoretical approach. Hakim argues that in order for research on women and work orientation to be genuinely useful (and, ipso facto, capable of challenging her own theory), two essential components are necessary. Firstly, it must be based on a random subset of the wider population, and, secondly, it must ask women directly and explicitly about their preferences. Our research meets both these criteria and therefore makes our results both interesting and useful in the light of this current debate.

Method and Analysis

The chapter reports on one aspect of the first four years of a major longitudinal study, which is part of the Australian Longitudinal Study into Women's Health (ALSWH). The ALSWH is designed to track the health of several cohorts of approximately 45,000 women over a period of up to twenty years. The project, which was established as a result of an Australian Government initiative to conduct a longitudinal cohort study on women's health, aims to clarify cause-effect relationships between a range of biological, psychological, social and lifestyle factors and women's physical health, emotional well being and satisfaction with health care services. To date, baseline and four year follow up data have been collected from three cohorts of women, aged 18-22, 45-49 and 70-74. In this chapter, we will present the results of a two-stage research project that has combined a large quantitative study of the young cohort - 14,762 young women - with a smaller, in depth qualitative study that has involved a sub-set of 57 of the original cohort.

As part of the ALSWH, the young women's cohort was asked a range of questions concerning their aspirations for ideal job; work hours, further education, relationships and marriage at age 35 years (see Appendix 1). To correct for over-sampling of women from rural and remote areas, all responses were weighted (area adjusted) so that the study was representative of the Australian population for women of this age group. Chi- square analyses were used when comparing proportions.

In order to further extend our analysis and to obtain comparative data, we disaggregated the data so that we could examine the influence of structural factors such as class and race/ethnicity. In relation to class, we followed other studies that have used local government area or postcode area as a marker for social advantage or disadvantage (Ainley, Graetz, Long and Batten 1995; Gregory and Hunter 1995). We chose two aggregated areas in Sydney, based on the numbers of high and low income households in Statistical Local Areas (ABS Census 1991). Low-income areas were defined by high numbers of low-income households (<$25,000 per annum) and with a high proportion of rental dwellings). By comparison, the high-income areas contained high numbers of high-income houses (>$75,000 per annum) with a low proportion of rental housing. We then identified 552 women who had participated in the ALSWH survey from those areas and compared the aspirations of the women from the low-income areas (403 women) with those from the high-income areas (149 women).

The data that emerged from this analysis (henceforth, Study 1 - S1) were revealing but provided only a quantitative snapshot (see Wicks and Mishra, 1998, for detailed results from the earlier study). In order to add both a qualitative and longitudinal dimension to our research, we approached 100 women from the same high and low income areas of Sydney that we had accessed for the original research four years after the initial ALSWH survey. In the end, 33 women from the highest average income areas and 24 from the lowest average income areas agreed to participate in telephone interviews, which were conducted at flexible times convenient to themselves (henceforth, Study 2 - S2). The schedule of questions for the interviews consisted of 29 questions designed to explore their aspirations for work, ideal job, education, relationships and children (see appendix 2). The questions also provided the opportunity for more in-depth discussion about what appealed to them about certain jobs and also about influences from family, neighbourhood and school. Because it had been four years since the first survey, it also provided an opportunity for gathering longitudinal data. For the longitudinal comparisons, the responses from the same 57 women are compared, four years apart. This longitudinal data is by necessity quantitative in nature, as we had no qualitative data from the original survey. In our presentation of the data, we outline the comparative, quantitative data first, not because we wish to give it priority but because it provides a 'big picture' context for the more detailed and personal information provided by the interview data. We believe that the use of a combination of quantitative and qualitative data is a strength of the research and adds to the complexity and clarity of our understanding of the young women and their aspirations. For instance, while it may seem unorthodox to submit our qualitative data to numerical content analysis (which we present on p10) we believe this is justified by the clarity of the picture that emerges in relation to a specific issue, in this case the effect of class on attitudes to work.

Results: The Quantitative Study 1996 (S1)

Aspirations for Work and Education

When asked what type of work they would like to be doing at aged 35, 60 per cent of the cohort responded that they wanted full time paid work. Consistent with the results on work, 74.5 per cent of respondents stated that at 35 they would like to have more educational qualifications than at present.

Click here for Table 1

Click here for Table 2

Aspirations for Ideal Job

From our survey, we obtained 14,762 individual responses to the question concerning which job each respondent would like to be doing at age 35. The jobs included everything from accountant, animal trainer to truck driver and Prime Minister. In order to organise the responses into something more manageable, we classified the written responses into the Australian Standard Classification of Occupations (ASCO). The results are contained in table 2.

Click here for Table 3

At present, only 29.7 per cent are working in jobs classified as professional, and another 14 per cent aspire to professional jobs in the future. This also throws light on the high percentage of women who desire to improve their educational qualifications. It is also instructive to compare the aspirations of the young cohort with the occupational realities of the mid-life cohort. For instance, while 23 per cent of the mid-life cohort is working as clerks, only 3.5 per cent of the young cohort want to be clerks.

Table 4

Marriage, Relationships and Children

It is apparent that this group of young women is not solely focused on work and qualifications. When asked about their aspirations for marriage, relationships and children the results were as follows: 85 per cent wanted to be married at age 35 while a further 11 per cent wanted to be in a stable relationship, and 92 per cent wanted children by aged 35. It is worth noting that the majority of the cohort aspire to the top three occupational categories and want one or two children by age 35.

Disaggregated Results

Social class

The effect of social class on the aspirations of the women is apparent when we disaggregate the results. For instance, 82 per cent of the high-income group want to be in the professional, paraprofessional or manager/ administrator groups compared to 67 per cent of the low-income group. This difference is statistically significant. In relation to the area of sales and personal services, traditionally an area of low pay, the trend is reversed.


Identified by country of birth, ethnicity was indicative of significant differences in aspirations for particular types of work at age 35 - in ways that may appear unexpected. When we combine the three categories of professional, para-professional and manager/administrator, the results were illuminating. While 75 per cent of those born in Asia, 70 per cent of those born in Europe (not of English speaking background), 71 per cent born elsewhere (English speaking background - Canada, USA, South Africa, New Zealand) aspired to have jobs within these categories at age 35, a statistically significant lower number of those born in Australia - 65 per cent - held aspirations for these jobs. In other words, young women who came originally from Asia and non- English speaking backgrounds had the most ambitious aspirations. Those born in Australia held the least ambitious aspirations for their ideal job.

The Qualitative Study 2000 (S2)

Interviews with 57 of the original cohort of young women 4 years later

Following analysis of the data from the baseline survey, a qualitative study was designed in order to gain more in-depth and longitudinal data from a sample of the cohort. The questions were designed to be both in depth and wide ranging. For the purposes of this paper, we shall limit our discussion to those issues that were explored in the earlier, quantitative study and from which comparisons can be drawn.

Aspirations for Work and Education

While this is clearly a much smaller sample, it is interesting to note that the majority of the sample 31 (54.4 per cent) still aspires to full time work when they are 35. At the same time, 41 (72 per cent) continue to aspire to further education (despite the fact that many have now completed their first degrees) and 35 (61 per cent) are aspiring to professional or managerial work.

Table 5

Click here for Table 6

The young women were clear in their responses on what appealed to them about full time work. Lyn responded to the question by using phrases such as ... a sense of personal satisfaction, mental stimulation, achieving something ... and then gathered her thoughts together and expressed them this way:

I think you are what you do these days where your work is a big part of yourself... so, because it takes up so much of your time, it's really important to do something you enjoy and something that is a career as opposed to just a place you go every day to earn money.

Cate, who has ambitions for an acting career, was realistic about the prospects of full time work in this field yet at the same time aspired to full time work at 35.

What appeals to me about full time work is being able to do something I enjoy for a large period of my time. If you enjoy your job then you'd like to be doing it all the time. There is also the issue of financial stability, which is kind of necessary!

Pam also talked about the sense of security associated with full time work and then added:

I just generally really like work... I really enjoy work and the stimulation and the work environment. I've actually done quite a lot of part time work in the past and I've found that full time work is a lot more rewarding and you can keep on top of things a lot better.

The young women were also clear on the connections between the desire for full time work and a career. Helen, for instance, when asked what it was about full-time work that appealed to her, responded:

I'm the sort of person...well, I guess I'm career oriented and want to do well and... there's probably this perception that you need to be in full-time work to really get into it and get somewhere.

Lyn had a similar view when she replied to the same question:

I guess it's not so much the full time paid work ... it's more the career that is important and with what I am going to do (television production) I assume that I'll be in full time work if I'm going where I want to be going in my career.

Carrie confirmed these views and added some comments concerning the disadvantages of part time work for career prospects.

I don't think you can really have the same sort of career aspirations through part time work. It seems like most employers regard part time employees as only half committed and that they (the employees) are just there for the money rather than that they are actually dedicated to the job.

And what of those women who aspired to part time work at 35. What were the reasons for their choice? While for the majority, their reasons were connected to anticipated child care responsibilities, there were a variety of other reasons for not wanting to work full time and these included a desire for more time for themselves, a more flexible lifestyle and in some cases, an antipathy towards paid work. The latter reason was especially relevant for the young women from low-income areas and will be dealt with separately below.

Aspirations for Ideal Job

As with the original survey (S1) the, 'ideal' jobs the majority of the women in S2, 35 (61 per cent) wanted were clustered in the professional and manager/administrator categories. This is a grouping which does not reflect the current labour market position of women where around 52 per cent of all employed women in Australia work in the two occupational groups of clerical and service workers (elementary, medium and advanced categories combined; ABS 2000 - 2001). In comparison, only 8 (14 per cent) of the respondents in the sub-study aimed to work in this traditionally female area. While 5 (9 per cent) were aiming at para-professional jobs, including nursing, the positions aspired to demonstrated a wide diversity, including such non-traditional areas as; town planning, mining engineering, cinematographer and business executive/CEO positions

Click here for Table 7

Aspirations for Marriage, Relationships and Children

The overall proportion of women who indicated they would like to be married at 35 was, at 47 (82 per cent), typically high. A slightly atypical 6 (10 per cent) of women opted for a stable relationship. Of the whole group, 4 (7 per cent) were unsure about whether they wanted a relationship or to eventually marry and this group was composed almost entirely of high-income young women (except for one). When asked what appealed to them about marriage, some distinct themes emerged in the answers. Janine discusses why she would prefer to be married when she has children:

I'd prefer to be married with children.... I just think it's a more stable sort of situation for children. It's better if you can have two influences on your child and preferably the influences that created the child in the first place would be good. That would be the best situation I think you could choose for your child.

In Mary's view, children are again the key, and reference is also made to the broader social valuation of marriage.

We're living together at the moment and we've got ourselves set up... with dogs and all that sort of stuff so.... If I'm going to have kids I want to be married before I have kids. (Interviewer: Why do you feel it's important to be married before you have kids) I think it's just the way I've been brought up.

Veronica echoed these sentiments:

Well... I mean I primarily want to be married because I want to have children and I feel that it's probably best to have two stable parents... Yeah I wouldn't want to get married for my own security... it'd matter more if I were to have children I think it would be in their better interests to have a more stable sort of home.

Other women expressed similar views and used words such as formality, tradition and security when describing their reasons for favouring marriage. In addition to tradition and security for children, another important and surprising finding was the almost equally common characterisation of the value of marriage as a source of companionship and in the provision of emotional rather than financial support. The following three quotes illustrate these sentiments.

Being married...I guess having someone there to support you as well...and be there with you. You're not on your own.
Just sort of having a partner that you can share your life experiences know...sort of having a like really close friend almost.
Probably companionship. It's just nice to think that you hopefully have married someone that you want to spend the rest of your life with.

Taken together, these findings indicate that a 'companionate' rather than a 'bread winner/homemaker' model of marriage is present amongst this group of women. This is reinforced when we recall that that just 5 (9 per cent) of the group intend to be exclusively homemakers at age 35.

Click here for Table 8

Click here for Table 9

The number of children aspired to at age 35 was fairly typical at around one third wanting more than two children and slightly under half of the women wanting one or more children at 35. A small minority 6 (10 per cent) of the women had not yet decided and a smaller minority 3 (5 per cent) wanted no children at all. Changes across time in the number of children desired were mapped. Around 57 per cent of the group had stable desires in this regard with the other third reconsidering their earlier statements. There was no clear pattern in these responses though 8 (14 per cent) of the group wanted more children than previously and approximately 5 (9 per cent) wanted less. Six of the women (11 per cent) were no longer sure how many children they wanted.

In summary, it is significant that a majority of the sample (54.4 per cent) are still aspiring to full time work when they are 35. We note also that 72 per cent continue to aspire to further education and 62 per cent are aspiring to professional or managerial work. The numbers who definitely want children at 35 is smaller at 82 per cent with 16 per cent now stating that they are either unsure (10.5 per cent) or want no children (5.3 per cent).

Social Class and Aspirations

Full or Part-time Work

We acknowledge again that this (S2) study is based on a small sample. Nevertheless, the effect of social class on the aspirations of the women is apparent when the results are disaggregated. This is particularly marked in relation to aspirations for full and part time work but also for choices regarding marriage and children. In relation to the hours of work aspired to, the class background of the respondents had a clear effect. While 22 (67 per cent) of the high-income respondents aspired to full time work at 35, only 9 (37.5 per cent) of the low-income respondents had the same aspiration. In relation to part time work the trend is reversed. (See Table 10)

Click here for Table 10

We are able to grasp the longitudinal dimensions of this set of aspirations when we compare the responses of the women from the low and high-income groups in 1996 and the year 2000. (See Table 11)

Click here for Table 11

It became apparent during the interviews that a discernible pattern was emerging between the two groups in the language used by the women to describe their reasons for wanting different types of work. Out of the six quotes presented above, from the women describing what it is that appeals to them about full time work, only one was from a woman from a low income background (Helen). More typical were these comments from Karen:

I'd like to win lotto and not work at all (laughs) but part time would be pretty ideal.

She then goes on to say

I'm hoping to have kids so I don't think I cannot work at all ... I just hate working five days and travelling. I know we have to do it (work) but I just think there is more to life. I'd like to have kids but not like to work full time I mean I'd like not to work at all but I think just our circumstances wouldn't allow us to have just one person working.

With these comments we get a sense of work being something that must be done rather than a source of fulfilment and pleasure. Amanda echoed these comments with her reply to the question on what it was that appealed to her about part-time work.

To be honest with you, I don't really have ambitions to be a businesswoman ... before I had but now since I got my job, it's too hard.... You don't have any time for a social life just have to work and I think... what's your life for if you're just going to work and work. You have to enjoy life as well and I'm planning to have kids so I don't want to be like full time working. I want time for the children and for myself.

Amanda was not the only woman from the low-income group who had encountered work and had not particularly liked the experience. Kirsty had stated in 1996 that at age 35 she wanted to be in full time work. By 2000 she had changed to wanting part time work and her reasons for this are interesting. To the initial question on what appealed to her about part time work, she replied that at that time she hoped to have children and that was causing her to change her mind. Later in the interview it became apparent that she was at a crossroads in relation to her career and future plans. Partly this was due to a change in government policy. While in 1996 she had thought she could combine having children with a full time career, she now felt that this would not be possible.

Well I guess what I mean with being a teacher, they're just bringing out the new (teachers) award and that's saying that the Minister for Education wants schools to be open from 7am to 10pm at night and that's like a sort of baby sitting service so I guess that would probably be an issue that would be in the forefront of my mind and the huge amount of money that it seems to cost to put your children into care if you're working full time.

Later in the interview she enlarged on the more personal reasons for wanting to get out of her current job.

I get very stressed under too much responsibility so my career change would be something where I feel I don't feel I have so much responsibility to people that I seem to have in a teaching career.

Kirsty enlarged on other sources of stress for teachers, in particular, the way that most of the responsibility for children's behaviour and future prospects were now perceived to be the responsibility of teachers. She then went on to explain:

I guess I'm looking for something that's a little less stressful ... and also, I'll probably look for a job that I don't have to come home from work and constantly be thinking of work all the time which is what I feel like I'm doing. You know, I come home and I've got work to do and it's a never ending cycle and I feel like I'm chasing my tail all the time and never getting to where I need to be... but I guess I'm a bit disillusioned in jobs and prospects and career at the moment and so that's sort of where I'm looking at now ... maybe that's why I'm turning to home and gardening and maybe even looking at children kind of thing.

In the case of Kirsty, we get a real sense that part of the attractiveness of the 'family option' at this stage is that it provides her with a rationale for leaving a job which she finds stressful and which has not fulfilled her hopes and expectations. There were, of course, others in the low-income group who had more positive experiences with and more positive attitudes about work. There was, however, a tendency for the women from the high-income group to be more positive and enthusiastic about the idea of work and career and importantly about their work experiences. We decided to submit this apparent tendency to more rigorous scrutiny by undertaking a content analysis of the various answers provided by the respondents in relation to their attitudes, experiences and feelings about work.

Content Analysis

In order to do this, we undertook an analysis of the S2 interviews, using words that were indicative of a positive conception of work (such as: interesting, stimulating, independence, identity) and alternatively, we searched for words that were indicative of a negative or utilitarian approach to work (such as: not enjoy, hate, dislike, boring). The results highlighted the effect of class on the attitudes of the interviewees to work. We found that while 87 per cent of the high-income respondents expressed positive words in relation to work, a lower 32.5 per cent of the low- income respondents expressed positive words. In terms of the negative or utilitarian words to describe work, the situation was reversed, with 68 per cent of the high income women expressing these words while all the women from the low income group expressed these words when they described or discussed their plans or feelings about work (with multiple responses adding up to 116 per cent).

These data are also evident and possibly flow through to the choices of the women for their ideal job (see Table 12).

Click here for Table 12

Aspirations for Ideal Job

While the difference is fairly small between the aspirations of the low and high-income groups for professional work, the differences are more marked in the aspirations of the women in the different groups for work in two key areas. In the category of Clerical/Sales and Personal Services, a traditional and relatively low paid area of work for women, only 2 (6 per cent) of women from the high-income group had aspirations to work in this sector compared to 6 (25 per cent) of women from the low-income group. In relation to the sector Management/Administration, historically an area dominated by men and characterised by relatively high paying jobs, 5 (21 per cent) of the women from the low income group compared to 10 (30 per cent) of the women from the high income group had aspirations to work in this sector.

In relation to the direction and type of changes in aspiration in both categories of respondents, a higher percentage of high-income young women (36 per cent of high income compared with 20 per cent of low-income respondents) had stable aspirations across both time points. More high income women indicated they intended to aim for a consultancy or to hold a managerial position in the same general area of employment they aspired to previously than did low income young women (21 per cent and 12.5 per cent).

Kate encapsulated the confidence and ambitions of many others from the high-income group when she answered a question on what it was about management that appealed to her:

I just think it's sort of a natural progression, you know, to use your experience and also to bring about some of your own ideas and vision about how things could operate I think you can do that better from a management position (obviously).

Aspirations for Marriage, Relationships and Children

As we have seen, significantly differing aspirations are held amongst the two groups of young women and this is also evident in their attitudes to partnerships. Whilst 23 (96 per cent) of the low income young women remained committed to the ideal of marriage, slightly over a quarter of the high income women were unsure about marriage by 35 or wanted to be unmarried but in a stable committed relationship at that point. None of the low-income group indicated that they would prefer such a relationship at 35. Members of this group were unsure about whether or not they planned to marry, but did not choose the relationship option.

A substantial minority 6 (18.2 per cent) of their high-income counterparts did, however, choose relationships over marriage at 35. This may prove be an effect of the young women's stage in the life course, or it may be indicative of a decline in the pervasiveness of the marriage ideal among some social groups. It is also instructive to take a look at the reasons given for this choice. Amongst the women who preferred relationships to marriage the main reasons for this departure was a perception of marriage as unnecessary to a stable relationship. The formalisation of such a bond was seen as redundant. This theme is taken up in Amanda's response below

I guess I don't see what marriage gives you that you don't have in a relationship and I suppose I have a lot of negative connotations with the whole idea of marriage. It just seems like ... I mean it's a social construct but it's not one that I feel any particular affinity for. I don't necessarily think that having it sort of formalised in a marriage context is necessarily important or is necessarily something that I want in my relationship


The Group as a Whole

The data from these cross-sectional and longitudinal studies present a rich and complex picture of the aspirations held by a large cohort of young, Australian women for work, marriage/relationships, children and their ideal job. Importantly, this study has produced both quantitative and qualitative data that has allowed the examination of the stated preferences of young women over a range of life choices. We are now in a position to know at least what these women want. These data also give us information that enhance our understanding of the causes of labour market segmentation, going beyond explanations that rely on the notion of individual choice and preferment.

In relation to preference for type of work, a majority of women in the original, large cohort (S1) and the smaller sub-set re- questioned four years later (S2) stated that at age 35 they wanted to be in full-time paid work outside the home. These figures appeared to indicate a serious commitment to a future in which paid work plays a significant and ongoing role in their lives. The responses to the questions in the baseline survey are particularly significant given the size and profile of the cohort. They cast serious doubt on the schema developed by Hakim of three groups of women, the largest consisting of 'adapters' with two smaller groups making up either work centred or home centred orientations. 0ur data indicate that the young women in this large study simply do not correspond to Hakim's three groups. These young women have a strong commitment to work and ongoing education at the same time as wanting marriage and children and time to spend with their children. In this they resemble the women in the study reported by Looker and Magee (2000) who noted that while the women in their study expected to take responsibility for most of the child-care, this did not affect their choice of career. In this they differ markedly from earlier studies of young women who regarded marriage as a career in itself.

These conclusions were reinforced in the year 2000 sub-study (S2) that demonstrated a similar percentage of the women continue to aspire to full-time work and more education at 35.The quantitative evidence is enhanced by comments from the women who took part in the qualitative study who demonstrated an understanding of the links between education, hours of work and career attainment to their ideal job. Their comments also revealed a perception about the limitations of part-time work for their career aspirations.

How then do we make sense of the disjuncture between the relatively low number of women aspiring to part-time work (31 per cent) and current workforce realities which indicate that since 1991 most of the steady upward trend in the average labour force participation rate for women in Australia can be accounted for by an increase in women's part-time employment? Indeed, during this period, women in the labour force were about three times more likely than men to be employed part-time (ABS, 2002). The economist Bob Gregory has pointed out that the other side of this picture concerns the fact that since 1966, the proportion of women in full-time jobs has been 'stuck' at 30 per cent (Sydney Morning Herald, February 20, 2002). This issue goes to the heart of the debate about preference and agency and structure and constraint. Certainly there is evidence from this study and elsewhere that women prefer part-time work while they are caring for pre-school children. There is also evidence that women with school age children are more likely to want full-time work in the future (Walsh, 1999:197). We believe that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that many women want different work at different times but that it is much harder to get out of part-time work than it is to get into it. This is confirmed by other researchers, such as Rubery, Horrell and Burchell (1994), Probert (1994), Jacobs (1999) and Walsh (1999). Yet Hakim insists that there is now a substantial body of research which shows that 'women who work part-time differ systematically from women with full-time jobs, in their work orientations and labour market behaviour' (Hakim 2000:101). Our findings, at the very least, cast doubt on this conclusion.

The findings on aspirations for work are reinforced by comments from the young women on marriage, children and relationships in the sense that marriage does not appear to be seen as a career in itself. When questioned on what appealed to them about marriage or a permanent relationship, the women's answers clustered around the ideas of tradition and social legitimacy, stability for children and the notion of companionship and emotional support. None of the women spoke of financial support as a reason for the appeal of marriage. It seems that they see their work as providing financial security and their relationship as providing companionship, stability for themselves and their children and, importantly, emotional support.

Aspirations and Social Class

A much more complex picture emerged when we disaggregated the respondents in both S1 and S2 by dividing our respondents into areas marked by low and high-income households. On almost every significant issue, there were clear and patterned differences in responses to questions on aspirations. The different attitudes to work coupled with aspirations to very different kinds of work and strategies to deal with combining work and children indicate that there is something deeper, more structural operating here that is entrenched and stable over time. In her most recent book, Hakim states:

Most studies find that the polarisation trend cuts across social class and income groups, indicating that socio-economic factors are no longer dominant, at least not for the sexual division of labour. (Hakim 2000: 127)

In this study, we have found it to be the most significant marker of difference. In this the study is consistent with recent work by Poole and Langan-Fox (1990), Burris (1991), and Andres et al (1999), but not with the study by Looker and Magee (2000). These results are also consistent with the literature on social class, which focuses on the connections between poverty and the distribution of life chances. Bourdieu (1977), for instance, has theorised the centrality of the education system in reproducing class inequalities. This approach is supported by the statistical analysis of social mobility by writers such as Goldthorpe (1980) and Gallie (1988), who demonstrate that the chances for entering secure, well paid, 'middle class' jobs are much higher for the sons, and to a lesser extent the daughters, of middle class parents than for the children of working class parents. To these general findings on class obstacles to social mobility has been added detailed statistical analysis by Gregory and Hunter (1995) on inequalities among Australian neighbourhoods. These authors have found that living in a low status neighbourhood can have a detrimental effect on employment or level of participation in the labour market. In this context, it is possible to see the lower occupational aspiration levels of the young women from the low-income areas as realistic in relation to their overall life chances. Yet, at the same time, the aspirations of the young women from the low-income areas are still higher than the current female participation rates in professional occupations. Clearly these general findings and the findings for effects of class have serious political and policy implications for areas as diverse as, child-care, workers rights, higher education, equity programs and superannuation. They indicate that we are far from the utopia of late modernity, and that further policy development and legislation will be necessary if we are to ameliorate the effects of patriarchy and class on the lives of women in the context of globalisation.

Critique of 'Preference Theory'

Our findings on the aspirations of a group of young women as a whole, in addition to the effect of class on those divided into high and low income households, contradict the key tenets of preference theory, in particular the concept of the heterogeneity of women developed and proposed by Hakim to explain labour market segregation. Rather than finding vertical boundaries between women who are divided (and have different interests) through early-formed commitments to work and family, we have found (at least for this stage of their lives) that the most significant division among the women is horizontal - social and economic class. In addition to casting doubt on the methodological adequacy of preference theory, these findings alert us to some fundamental problems with the theory. These problems relate to the reliance of the theory on the idea of free-floating preferences that apparently exist outside relations of social power. Interestingly, power can be seen operating in the historical processes that resulted in what Hakim conceptualises as the five great changes in society and the labour market which started in the 20th century and which have produced a qualitatively different and new scenario of options and opportunities for women.[1]

Yet, crucially, it appears that for Hakim outside of these great historical events free individual decision-making takes over when it comes to women's preferences, which theoretically and practically take place in a power vacuum or alternatively are determined by the unseen hand of varying levels of the male hormone, testosterone (Hakim 2000:282). Without a concept of power that is inherent in the process of preferment and choice (Lukes, 1974), power operates exclusively outside human agency and history becomes merely the context and backdrop for human action rather than its substance and outcome (Connell, 1983).

In order to achieve an explanatory theory that is both useful and also sociological, account must be taken of social context and the social inter-penetration of gender, personality formation and class relations and the resulting pre-dispositions toward various choice and preference options. It must be capable of producing a sociological explanation that allows for the exploration and analysis of the operation of power at the level of individual choice. Such a theory, which is beyond the scope of this paper, would also need to avoid the traps of structural determinism, on the one hand, and voluntarism on the other. It would need to be able to account for 'invention within limits' (Bourdieu quoted in Connell, 1983:145), or, to paraphrase Marx, it would need to account for the capacity of the young women to make history, but not necessarily in conditions of their own choosing.


The data presented in this paper from a study of the aspirations of a large cohort of young, Australian women indicate at this stage that the causes of labour market segmentation cannot be found solely in the expressed preferences and choices of the women themselves. This contradicts Preference Theory developed by Hakim to explain gender labour market segmentation by reference to the preferences and choices made by individual women. These results reveal a dramatic disjuncture between the stated aspirations of the women and the current structure of the female labour force and participation rates in Australia. In addition, and importantly, we have seen that there were quantitative and qualitative differences in the aspirations of the women when we disaggregated the cohort along the lines of social class. It is clear from this study that the structural processes of class and gender continue to operate in the lives of these women. As we were able to include a longitudinal dimension to the study, it is also significant that the aspirations of the majority of the women for full-time work, marriage and children when they are 35 have remained stable over four years. Some of these same women may choose in the future to take part-time work, especially when their children are young. They may then find that after a period in part-time work it is difficult to get back into the full-time workforce. This may be particularly the case for women who find themselves in 'heavily female dominated occupations' (Wing Chan, 1999). They may even adapt to this and find that they are satisfied with a life that holds other satisfactions and rewards. The fact remains, however, that this was not what they wanted or preferred as young women. We will only know how their lives unfold with further research, but we do know that at this point the majority see themselves as having multiple identities as wives/companions, mothers, workers and careerists. In this sense, we know what they want, and further research will tell us how what they want changes over time and whether it matches what they actually get.


1The five separate historical changes can be summarised as: (1) the contraceptive revolution; (2) the equal opportunities revolution; (3) the expansion of white collar occupations; (4) the creation of jobs for secondary earners; and (5) the increasing importance attitudes, values and lifestyle choices in affluent, modern societies (Hakim, 2000:7).


Appendix 1

Appendix 2


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