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How has women's participation in the labour market changed over time?

Over time, the labour force participation rate has increased for all women aged 25–49 years, although the increases have been much more significant for mothers, especially sole mothers. From the June 1994 year to the June 2014 year, the participation rate of sole mothers increased by 23.0 percentage points, compared with an increase of 7.8 percentage points for partnered mothers, and only 1.9 percentage points for women with no dependent children.

Figure 1

Graph, Labour force participation rate of women | Graph, Labour force participation rate of women

While the participation rate of mothers is still lower than that of women with no dependent children, the difference between the participation rate of sole mothers and partnered mothers has converged. In the June 2014 year, only 3.5 percentage points separated the participation rates of sole and partnered mothers, compared with a difference of 18.8 percentage points in the June 1994 year.

Table 1
Proportion of women in each labour market group
By parent status
Year ended June, annual averages

Parent status

Labour market group

Employed

Unemployed(1)

In the labour force

Not in the labour force

1994

2004

2014

1994

2004

2014

1994

2004

2014

1994

2004

2014

Percent

Sole mothers

37.7

50.9

57.8

8.8

6.3

11.7

46.5

57.2

69.5

53.5

42.8

30.5

Partnered mothers

61.7

68.4

69.6

3.6

2.1

3.4

65.2

70.5

73.0

34.8

29.5

27.0

Women with no depen-dent children

80.3

83.5

82.9

5.1

3.1

4.3

85.4

86.6

87.3

14.6

13.4

12.7

Total

65.6

71.3

73.2

4.7

3.1

4.7

70.4

74.3

78.0

29.6

25.7

22.0

1. The proportion of women in the working-age population who are unemployed is not the same as the unemployment rate (the proportion of the total labour force who are unemployed).

Underneath the participation story, there has been a large gain in the proportion of sole mothers who are employed (up 20.1 percentage points) over the last 20 years, and a notable gain in the proportion of partnered mothers who are employed (up 7.9 percentage points). However, the employment rate for mothers is still significantly lower than it is for women with no dependent children (see table 1). As we will see later, underlying factors, such as the mother's demographics and level of qualification attained, and the age and number of her children, all play a role in the rate of employment.

Table 1 also shows that the unemployment story is much more significant for sole mothers than for other women in this age group, with just over one-tenth of all sole mothers unemployed (actively seeking and available to start work) in the June 2014 year. Sole mothers made up 11.8 percent of women in the 25–49-year age group in the June 2014 year, but accounted for 29.0 percent of all unemployed women in this age group.

Figure 2 shows the changes in labour force participation and employment rates over the last 20 years for the three groups. This further illustrates the gap between employment gains and participation gains for sole mothers caused by the larger contribution that unemployment makes for this group of women.

Figure 2

Graph, Change in women's employment and labour force participation rates between 1994 and 2014, by parent status, year ended June.

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