This study investigates the impact of having a dependent child with a disability on mothers' participation in paid work. The focus is on the level of workforce participation as well as on key influences on the level of mothers' workforce participation. In both the descriptive and the explanatory aspect of the study, there is a particular concern to obtain and report findings relevant to public policy. An examination of the comparative level of desire to work among non-working women and of factors associated with the desire to work is included, to inform both the explanatory investigation and the policy implications. To strengthen causal inferences, a comparative design is applied, involving both mothers with dependent children with disabilities and mothers with dependent children, none of whom has a disability.
Secondary data from a large, representative Australian household survey are used in order to increase the generalizability of the results. The 1,035 women who are the focus of the study have dependent children below 15 years of age, including both partnered women and lone mothers. Of the 203 mothers with children with disabilities, 52 have a child with a disability that involves a severe/profound activity limitation. The definitions of "disability" and "severe/profound activity limitation" conform with those incorporated in the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (World Health Organization, 2001).
Inherent in the conceptual framework for the study is a concern to examine the interface between having a child with a disability and typical influences on workforce participation of mothers with dependent children. The study therefore draws considerably on the theoretical and empirical literature on women’s workforce participation with the aim of ascertaining how useful these concepts are in explaining the workforce participation of mothers of children with disabilities. Operationally, this results in the inclusion of a wide range of theory-based individual, intra-familial and extra-familial factors that may influence whether mothers work or not; and if working, whether they work part-time or full-time.
The study's design gives particular attention to examination of three issues. These are: (a) the comparative influence of the partnership status of the women on workforce participation levels and influences on workforce participation; (b) the impact of the child with a disability having a severe/profound activity limitation; and (c) whether and to what extent differences between mothers with and without children with disabilities on predictors that are not directly related to having a child with a disability (for example, family size or educational qualifications) influence the level of workforce participation.
Quantitative analytic methods are used including both descriptive and predictive statistical procedures. These consist primarily of cross-tabulations with significance testing and logistic regression.
While logistic regression models form the core component of the explanatory study, the conclusions regarding what influences workforce participation levels are also informed by other analyses. This approach results in the identification of sub-groups of women within the sample of mothers of children with disabilities as well as of average tendencies.
The results demonstrate that mothers of children with disabilities have significantly lower levels of workforce participation than do other mothers with dependent children. Differences between samples on predictor characteristics contribute to, but do not fully explain, the differences in level of workforce participation between mothers with and without children with disabilities. Being a lone parent with a child with a disability increases the likelihood of not being in the workforce, as does having a child with a disability that involves a severe/profound activity limitation.
The explanatory investigation demonstrates that there are multiple challenges, both intra-familial and extra-familial, to mothers' workforce participation when children have disabilities. There is also evidence that the particular combination of typical influences and their relative importance differ when there is a child with a disability in the household. Questions are raised about the need to combine factors related to having a child with a disability and typical influences when modelling the workforce participation levels of all mothers of children with disabilities.
When a child has a severe/profound activity limitation, typical influences, whether intra-familial or extra-familial, on mothers' workforce participation are less important. In view of these results, questions are also raised about the adequacy of models of women's workforce participation to explain the workforce participation levels of mothers with children with severe/profound activity limitations.
Differences among mothers with children with disabilities on predictors of workforce participation levels are particularly associated with having a child with a severe/profound activity limitation and with partnership status, but there are also other differences within the group. Typical and disability-related predictors converge in varying combinations to influence workforce participation levels.
Implications of the study's findings for theories of women's workforce participation are identified, as are issues that require further research. The policy implications, including possible policy initiatives to address the common and varying constraints on workforce participation, are discussed. Key distinguishing features of the sample of women with children with disabilities that may have implications for epidemiological studies and family support programs are also identified.