Is self-employment good for parents?

New research reveals mothers seeking more freedom though self-employment struggle more to balance work and family needs compared to self-employed fathers, who are able to work longer hours and experience greater flexibility.

Researchers from La Trobe University and the Australian National University analysed data from Growing up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. Data were provided by 1,948 mothers and 2,164 fathers of young children (aged four to 13), six per cent of whom had transitioned from consistent organisational employment to entrepreneurial work.

They found moving into self-employment encouraged gendered norms in participants, with the majority of fathers adopting breadwinning roles, while mothers prioritised family needs over their paid work.

Co-author Dr Amanda Cooklin, from La Trobe University’s Judith Lumley Centre, said the study – published in the journal Sex Roles – provides vital information for parents seeking balance between work and family.

“For many people, decisions about how they manage their careers are influenced by the interaction between their work and childrearing roles, which remain underpinned by social and gendered norms about work and care,” Dr Cooklin said.

“Self-employment is often viewed as a positive, flexible way for women particularly to manage work while juggling the responsibilities associated with caring for a new baby, or children in early parenting and school years.”

The self-employed represent around 17 per cent of working adults in Australia (including independent contractors and business operators). Of those, around 12 per cent of women and 20 per cent of men are self-employed.

Researchers examined whether self-employment is an effective solution to work-family conflicts.

  • For fathers of young children: Self-employment led to longer work hours (an increase of four hours per week) and more work commitments that put pressure on family needs. However, fathers also experienced fewer instances where family interfered with work. Overall, fathers reported more flexibility and more control over their work and scheduling, and enhanced enrichment – that is, more satisfaction and happiness at combining work and family when they moved into self-employment.
  • For mothers of young children: Moving into self-employment led to working fewer hours (weekly work hours dropped by almost five hours), and more control over their work schedules compared to organisational work, allowing them to lessen some of their pressures from work. However, compared to fathers, mothers also reported that family needs interfered with their work more often when they were self-employed. Overall, self-employed mothers reported that their work was less enriching and reported fewer net benefits than fathers who transitioned into self-employment, particularly in connection to their sense of confidence and happiness at combining work and family.

Co-author Dr Liana Leach from the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University said the findings bring caution to the current view of self-employment as a potential solution to the work-family dilemma.

“For self-employed fathers, self-employment may work to relieve some work-family strains. Fathering is organised centrally around work as a priority, performing a breadwinner role and also allowing them to potentially be more available to their children,” Dr Leach said.

“For mothers, however, self-employment may actually reinforce traditional gender norms by entrenching inequalities in paid work, as mothers seem to still shoulder obligation to prioritise care for children and be more available, fitting their paid work around this.”

The researchers argue that their findings provide further incentive for workplaces to provide equitable family-friendly supports for mothers and fathers.

“While this study was conducted pre-COVID-19, these findings are salient to the current context where many parents are now working from home, mirroring what has normally been the domain of self-employed parents. Our findings flag that these transitions to working from home may bring flexibility and longer work hours to fathers, but not necessarily to the same extent for mothers,” Dr Leach said.

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