Choice, constraint, class and culture: an evaluation of British women’s work-family choices, 1991-2003 -PhD Thesis-

Publication type

Thesis/Degree/Other Honours


Publication date

June 1, 2007


Despite huge social and economic changes, British women still perform the majority of domestic and caring tasks and, compared to men, are less likely to work and more likely to work part-time. These inequalities are now a major issue in current UK polity debates while, among academics, the extent to which these inequalities emerge from choice, constraint, or some mixture of the two is widely researched. However, for many reasons, no consensus on the respective roles of ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ has emerged from this.

This thesis illuminates the debate using data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) for the years 1991 to 2003. Using a simple, though robust, methodology around 3,000 women a year are classified into four ‘preference’ and ‘life-course’ groups. The associations between their attitudes, life-course position and labour market outcomes are then described as are the changes in these over the period, during which the UK economic and policy environments changed considerably. It then analyses the extent to which differences in social class impact on the formation of women’s attitudes, and/or on their ability to attain their desired work-family outcomes. Finally, the longitudinal features of the BHPS are used to ascertain the stability of women’s attitudes over the life-course, especially during family formation. While the results suggest attitudes, especially following childbirth, have a major impact on women’s employment outcomes, if finds many lower-status women encounter significant constraints in combining work and care. Thus, while class has little impact on attitude formation compared to motherhood, it strongly reduces their ability to achieve their desired work-family balance.

While the results are seen as tentative, it concludes with some policy recommendations for how gender labour market inequality might be addressed and with some ideas for how future research concerning understanding and explaining this might be improved.



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