Working Patterns in Couple Households

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This article addresses the issue of reconciliation between family and professional life. Using data from the UNECE Gender Statistics Database, the article examines and compares working patterns in couples, time spent in paid and unpaid work, and part time work in various UNECE countries. The analysis suggests that mothers are faced with higher demands when combining family and professional life compared to fathers.


The challenge of combining family and professional life is one that affects the whole family. Even in the western countries of Europe, it is now increasingly the case that a single earned income is insufficient to meet the needs of a family; as a result both parents often have to work from financial necessity. In addition, women today have better levels of education and often do not wish to entirely give up their careers to have a family.

Although ever more women, particularly mothers, are now economically active, this should not disguise the fact that most women in many different countries work part-time and, if there are small children in the household, the occupation rate is comparatively low (less than 50%). Conversely, most men, especially fathers, work full-time, which is why the burden of organising work and family mainly falls to mothers. For both mothers and fathers, a successful reconciliation of work and family life is still not certain in most countries. Yet for mothers the issue of managing both family and employment has, in general, much further reaching consequences than for fathers since it is still mainly mothers who take on the primary responsibility for the raising of and caring for children.

Economic Activity of Women and Men

Irrespective of whether the woman is economically active (full- or part-time), traditional patterns with the man in full-time employment are the most common in almost all countries, occurring in at least 8 in 10 couple households. Hungary and Romania are exceptions since part-time work hardly features in these countries (and they show relatively high levels of unemployment, particularly of men).

By examining working patterns in countries for which current figures are available it is possible to ascertain groups of countries with similar patterns.

  1. In Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Belgium there is a high proportion of couple households where the man works full-time and the woman part-time (between 41.9% in Switzerland and 33.2% in Germany). Of all the countries studied, Switzerland has the lowest proportion of the both partners working full-time pattern (23.4%), followed by Germany (28.3%) and Austria (32.2%). Furthermore, after Sweden (4.3%), Switzerland has the highest occurrence of the both partners working part-time pattern compared to the other countries (CH: 3.4%).
  2. Portugal and Finland demonstrate a high proportion of couple households where both partners work full-time (66.7% and 64.0% respectively) and a relatively low percentage where the man works full-time and the woman part-time.
  3. Italy, Spain and Ireland are marked by more traditional working patterns, in other words a high percentage of couple households where the man works full-time and the woman is economically inactive (37.1%, 33.6% and 28.9% respectively). Compared to the other countries, this pattern is most common in Italy, and is, together with the pattern whereby both partners work full-time, the most widespread pattern in the country (around 37% respectively).
  4. Rarer patterns occur more frequently in Sweden than in other countries, such as both partners working part-time (4.3%), or the man working part-time and the woman full-time (4.5%). Of couple households with persons aged between 25 and 49, Sweden has the lowest percentage of women who are economically inactive among the countries investigated (12.8%).
  5. In general, part-time work hardly features in Romania and Hungary, neither for men nor women. As a consequence there are scarcely any couple households in which the woman works part-time alongside a man in full-time employment (only 2.7% in both countries). It is most common for both partners to work full-time (Romania 59.1% and Hungary 54.7%). In addition, the two working patterns of the non-working man and the woman in full-time employment and two non-working partners are relatively common in comparison to other countries. This is in connection with the relatively high unemployment rate in these two countries since both inactive and unemployed persons are considered as not working.

Couple Households with Children

The life situation of couple households changes fundamentally as soon as children are present. In Switzerland, Austria and Germany the pattern of full-time employment of both partners is much less widespread in households with children than those without. If there are children under 6 years of age in the household, the man working full-time/woman part-time pattern is common along with the "sole male breadwinner" pattern, in which the man works full-time and the woman is economically inactive (in a good 3 to 4 in 10 households). Mothers take up employment again as the children’s age increases, although this is often on a part-time basis.

This familiar change-over to the "sole male breadwinner" pattern can also be observed in Hungary and Finland, particularly in households with children under 6 and with the pattern especially marked in Hungary. The change-over is much less obvious in Portugal, with the proportion of couples working full-time, even with children, remaining relatively high. The percentage of households in which the woman works part-time alongside a man in full-time employment is low in the three countries in all family situations (under 1 in 10).

The phenomenon characterised by the shift from both partners working full-time to the "sole male breadwinner" pattern when there are children in the household is also noticeable in Italy and Spain, although this is much less pronounced than in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. There is also no significant difference between couple households with children under 6 and those with children over 6 in terms of the parents' participation in the labour force.

A different picture is painted for Sweden and Belgium. Here, the presence of children in the household does not affect the employment of women but their degree of occupation, with women reducing their employment from full-time to part-time work rather than withdrawing from the labour force altogether. This can be seen in a decline in the both partners working full-time pattern in favour of the man full-time/woman part-time pattern. The percentage of mothers who do not participate in the labour force remains low in Sweden, including in households with children.

In Romania only very small differences are noticeable between couples with and those without children, and no difference at all is recorded in the working patterns of parents in relation to the age of the children.

It is striking that the presence of children does not lead, for instance, to an increase in egalitarian or new working patterns (e.g. both partners working part-time or the woman working full-time and the man part-time or not working), rather there is a greater tendency for prevalent, traditional patterns to be reinforced. Alternative patterns occur principally in couple households without children.


  • Family and work balance in everyday life: a European comparison. Paper prepared for the UNECE Work Session on Gender Statistics, 6-8 October 2008, Federal Statistical Office Switzerland.

See Also

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