Work-Life conflict. Is it different for men and women?

For some people, working life comes to an end because the job is causing problems at home. Others may decide to leave – or be forced to leave – because family responsibilities are interfering with their ability to do their job. But what are the gender differences in these scenarios? Baowen Xue and colleagues from the RenEWL project at UCL found that experiencing work-family conflict influenced men and women differently. 

The Government’s desire to extend our working lives is one of  the most  significant  policy developments  in  recent times. Its decisions on retirement age could potentially make us healthier and wealthier, but they could also lead to greater inequality.

So, it’s important to understand the interplay, and the potential conflict, between work and home. What happens when the work-life balance just isn’t working? And who bears the brunt of that? Our new evidence suggests that where there’s a work-family conflict it’s more often women who compromise by leaving the world of work – even though their less generous pension provision might suggest they have a greater need to stay.

The population in most western societies has been ageing  for the  last  few  decades and resulting pressures  on  social benefits  systems  have increased  interest  in explaining  when  and why older  people  leave work.  Previous studies have looked for links between leaving work and marital status, for instance, or number of dependent children. But we wanted to go further, measuring the problem over time, studying older workers in their late career stage,  and looking at other factors such as health and working conditions.

These issues cut both ways, of course – for some, a heavy workload may cause problems by interfering with the time they have available for family. For others, caring for an older relative  might be incompatible  with work responsibilities.  Either problem could have knock-on effects, such as lessening job satisfaction, forcing workers to take time off or even to quit.

There’s lots of evidence that both poor working conditions and stresses in the family are linked to early retirement, but what about these work-family conflicts?  We used data from a major study of British civil servants to look at how such issues might relate to people leaving work in the later stages of their careers.   

Gender gap

Over the  last few decades,  women have established  themselves  in  the  workplace, but  men  have been  much  slower to  take  up more domestic  labour  (Sullivan, 2000).  Working women  are  often  found  to be  primarily responsible  for their families.

And men and women  often  have different experiences of work. When men leave  their  jobs, they  are leaving roles that  have typically  dominated  their whole adulthood.  Women,  however, are more likely to have moved  in and  out of  the  labour force  and  part-time jobs while managing shifting household responsibilities.

So, stopping work may have different meanings  for men and women. Women, too, are less  likely than  men  to be  covered  by a  pension – and they may therefore be less inclined to hang on in there when family responsibilities are pressing.

We used the Whitehall II study, which followed civil servants based in London in the late 1980s and who were aged 35 to 55 when recruited to the study. We looked at data gathered from those participants during a 10-year period from the early 1990s – a sample of around 7000 people; 5000 men and 2000 women.

They were asked to say whether they felt family interfered with their work – or work with family –not at all, to some extent or a great deal, with a further category for those who didn’t have family or who felt the question was not applicable to them. They were also asked questions about whether they felt work interfered with family.

We classified those who were not working during follow-up interviews as having left due to long- sickness, retirement, unemployment or homemaking and other reasons.

We found there were significant gender differences in the decision to leave work for family reasons, whether because work was clashing with family or vice versa.

Women who experienced family interference with work were more likely to retire or leave to be a homemaker. Whereas men were more likely to stay in work if they felt family interfered with their work.  Conversely, we did not find any significant link between men’s decisions to leave and a sense that work was affecting their family life. And indeed, the likelihood of retiring was lower among men who felt family was interfering with their work. 

Women, though, were significantly more likely to leave work through either retirement or the homemaker route if they felt work was interfering with family – though these effects disappeared when we took other background factors such as working conditions and their sense of control within the family into account. The decisions women made were partly accounted for by factors such as caring responsibilities and sense of control in the home.

We looked at several factors that might account for relationships between work-family conflict and exit from work. Men and  women with  one  or two  dependent  children, rather  than  none, were  more likely  to retire.  Men who had a high degree of agency and control at work  were  less likely  to retire,  but  such psychosocial  working  conditions were  not connected  with women’s retirement.  Men and women  with lower  home  control, men with  three  or more dependent  children,  and women  with  caring responsibilities  were  more likely  to leave for family reasons. 

We found more women had  caring responsibilities than men, but  more  than twice as many men  had dependent children  in  the household.  Women reported  higher control  at  home than  men.  

Retirement was the  most  frequent reason for leaving work, with just over four out of five men and just under four out of five women taking this route. More women  than men  left  work  for health or home-making reasons, and slightly more men left through unemployment.  The average age  at leaving was  60 years for men  and  59 for women.  Female homemakers were  youngest when leaving  work, on average  56 years.

So why the gender difference? It is possible  that where  there  is a  work family  conflict for  both partners,  it  is more likely  that  women will  be  the ones  to  compromise and  to  leave work. As women  have fewer  financial resources  (including  pension wealth)  and  on average  contribute  fewer earnings  to the  household  than men,  they  may therefore  have  less ‘bargaining  power’  on work decisions  than  their male  partners.

But that leaves women in a double-bind: they are the ones to leave early, but that diminishes their chances of increasing an already smaller pension pot. So, what can policy-makers do? 

Adjustments  in  the workplace, such  as  flexible  working hours  and  higher social  support,  could reduce  work-family  conflict and help  these  women to  remain  in work.  

We have known for some time that work-family conflict could  be an  important  issue for  younger  people with  children,  but our  study underscores  the importance  of  this issue for  older  people’s labour  market participation too.  As women tend to retire at a  younger  age than  men,  and as pressures  on  social benefits  systems  are increasing due to an ageing population, it  is important for policy-makers to think hard about finding ways to  reduce  work-family conflict for women  across working  life.

Work and family conflict in relation  to work  exit in  later career  stage:  a 20 years follow-up  of Whitehall  II study, by Baowen  Xue, Maria Fleischmann, Jenny  Head, Anne  McMunn, and Mai Stafford is published in The Journals of Gerontology.