Australian families changing as more mothers return to work full-time

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Rachel Di Leva admits it’s no walk in the park working full-time, having a partner who works full-time and parenting four children aged between eight and 20 months. But she knows for most, this kind of routine is the new normal.

“We’re both working professionals,” says Di Leva, a regulatory compliance consultant in the health industry. “It’s a huge and challenging juggle, but you need to earn and you need to stay current.”

Rachel and Rob Di Leva with their children Allegra, Rocco, Emiliana and Luca.Credit: Simon Schluter

“I did go part-time at some points … But essentially, you can’t afford financially or professionally not to work.”

Di Leva and her husband, Rob, an executive at Speech Pathology Australia, are part of a social shift that puts them among the vast majority of coupled households with children under 15.

As stigma about mothers working full-time plummets and costs rise, labour force and census data shows that in 2022, the proportion of dual-earner families increased to 71 per cent, nearly double the level of 1979.

In 2021, nearly a third (31 per cent) of families had both parents working full-time, though it remains more common for one parent to be full-time and the other part-time (36 per cent). The number of both parents working full-time has jumped from around one in five (22 per cent) in 2009.

The need to pay increasingly large mortgages and women wanting to protect their careers means the number of families in which only the father works is down to one in five.

Dr Jennifer Baxter, from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, says financial need is pushing up women’s work participation and women also do not wish to “waste” their educations.

“There are so many competing forces in people’s lives and there are a couple of really big ones that overwhelm a desire to stay at home or work less,” says Baxter, who authored the report Employment Patterns and Trends for Families With Children.

“You’ve still got to pay your mortgage and money’s a big one. Women’s education levels have just skyrocketed over the [recent] decades, and if you’ve got your education, you want to use it.”

Better access to quality childcare, paid parental leave and workplace flexibility are contributing to mothers – who traditionally work fewer hours as women still tend to earn less – increasing work hours.

Mothers including Rachel Di Leva say working part-time but doing a full-time workload influences their choice to increase their hours.

“I find with three and four days, you’re essentially paid less, but you’re still on the clock working the same hours,” says Di Leva, who started her own business, Allure Wellness Consulting, after years in the vitamin industry.

“A lot of my peers have gone back to work after having kids, starting part-time and realising it is inequitable; putting in the [extra] hours and not being paid for it.

Nghi Whelan, with husband, Chris, and daughters Freya and Odette, says the intellectual stimulation, using her education in occupational therapy, role-modeling and financial needs are drivers for remaining heavily engaged with work.Credit: Justin McManus

Nghi Whelan, whose children with economist husband Chris are six and nine, works four days a week as an occupational therapist and educator.

“Having two girls, role modelling that is also important,” she says. “Financially though, it’s definitely more so now than ever making us think about whether I go back to work full-time, now they’re both in primary school.

“All my uni girlfriends are part-time professionals, and their male partners are full-time. Among same-sex friends [with children], if male they both work full-time, and if they’re female, one’s full-time and the primary caregiver is part-time.”

‘Women take a massive financial risk when they leave the workforce altogether after children. Not all relationships stay together.’

Women feel more supported and encouraged to do paid work while children are young due to changing social mores, says Danielle Wood, chief executive of the Grattan Institute.

In the 40 years since more women than men started enrolling at universities, women have developed an expectation they will not stop working.

Big increases in house prices relative to incomes mean that two incomes “are almost necessary” now to buy a home.

Social attitudes to gender roles have progressed and more women are in the “greedy jobs” where progress depends on full-time participation.

“This is also crucial for women’s economic security.” Wood says. “Women take a massive financial risk when they leave the workforce altogether after children.

“We see much higher rates of financial distress among divorced mothers than divorced fathers for example.

“We still lag most OECD nations in the rates of full-time work by women though.”

Dr Brendan Churchill, a Melbourne University sociologist who researches work, employment and family, says Baxter’s findings “really underscore that in 2023, you need to have both parents working to afford a family”.

That there has been barely any change in 40 years in the rate of fathers’ employment was a barrier to achieving gender equality, Churchill says.

“We need to see them as one half of the story. By and large, fathers are still in full-time work. Are we really seeing change here, progress towards equality, if fathers’ grip on the labour market remains the same over time and the age of the child?”

Tamara Lawless, Addison, Grace and Michael Lawless with dog Alfie at their home in Forestville. Credit: Louie Douvis

Sydney mother-of-two, Tamara Lawless, chief customer officer at the Family Friendly Workplaces inititaive, says as well as more women needing to work full-time to help support their family, “there is also a want to work for many women”.

”Women that I know, also want to have a sense of identity and purpose outside of their family life and want to use their education and experience and be challenged,” says Lawless, who works full-time and was formerly with Seek and Domain.

“I would say that 95 per cent of my friendship group works. There are some that don’t need to work financially, but want to work as they enjoy working.”

Both Emma Walsh, founder of the consultancy Parents at Work, and Jodi Geddes, of Circle In, say the research shows the future of work will need to be more family friendly.

“This is especially true for working mothers who increasingly want to stay in the workforce. Generous parental leave benefits are now seen as a must-have not a nice-to-have, and employees are seeking out workplaces that will support them at every life stage.”

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