Cultural factors explain inactivity rates of women

A study has shown that cultural factors may lie behind women’s inactivity rates in Malta. Negative views on childcare facilities may inhibit them from relying on professional childcare while they return to work. The EU-funded study focuses on women who are not active in the labour market, exploring their perceptions about support services like childcare centres and care services for the elderly. The research revealed that information about support structures and related incentives to encourage women to return to work were not reaching their target audience.

About the study

An EU funded study, commissioned by the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality (NCPE), has looked at reasons why women are not active in the labour market. It explores their perceptions about support services like childcare centres and care services for the elderly.

The study was part of a broader research project called Unlocking the Female Potential (3.54 MB PDF) and was published in early 2012.

The broad aim of the study was to look at the potential of women who are not active in the Maltese labour market, and what makes it difficult for them to return to work. Among other things, the study looks at the links between female inactivity and women’s perceptions about the use of childcare and elderly care services. It also assesses their awareness of support that could help them return to paid work.


The study adopted a mixed methods approach. Quantitative research was conducted through face-to-face interviews of about 30 minutes with 600 inactive women. Interviewees were divided into two age groups, 15–34 years and 35–59 years. The qualitative research was based on 20 interviews with key stakeholders, such as senior government officials, women’s association representatives, employers’ organisations and trade unions, and on 10 interviews with inactive people of working age, two of whom were men.

Main findings

Over a third of inactive women (38%) said they were not in employment because they were taking care of their children. A smaller number (6%) said they had to take care of elderly parents. This suggests that services for the care of children and the elderly could play a significant role when women consider returning to work, although it can’t be guaranteed that they would be used.

Perceptions about childcare

Family values in Malta are still very strong. When it comes to childcare, it is significant that well over half of survey respondents (65%) preferred to take care of their children themselves rather than sending them to a childcare centre. Less than half (42%) said they would feel that their mind would be at rest if their child was attending a childcare centre. They felt they would not consider themselves to be good mothers if they did not take care of their children themselves. Sending children to a childcare centre had negative connotations. For example, some respondents felt that they would be abandoning their children when they should be giving them their full attention.

Less than a third of inactive women (30%) were aware of the existence of childcare services in their locality – possibly because they took care of their children themselves, and were not interested in this service. However, more than a third (35%) said childcare services were not being offered in their town or village.

Overall, less than half of the respondents (42%) were willing to use a childcare centre. The majority (63%) believed that such centres should only be used for a few hours a day. Out of the sample of 600, very few (36) used childcare centres. When asked about the quality of the service offered, the vast majority (78%) believed it to be either ‘good’ or ‘very good’. Only 8% reported that the service was ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

Overall, fewer than half of the respondents (39%) wanted more childcare centres even fewer (31%) wanted the opening hours of childcare centres to match typical office working hours.

Perceptions of care facilities for older adults

The respondents seemed to have fewer reservations about using care facilities for the elderly. The majority (62%) felt that their mind would be at ease if their relatives were in a care centre. There was some resistance to care homes for the elderly. Just under half of respondents (46%) said they preferred to take care of their elderly relatives themselves, and 41% said they would feel as if they were abandoning them if they were placed in a care facility.

Government incentives

A large percentage of Maltese women (68%) were not aware of any incentives offered by government to help more women return to the labour market. Only a small proportion (13%) of those aged 15–34 was aware of the €2,000 tax rebate offered to mothers who returned to work after maternity leave.

An even smaller proportion of women (4%) aged between 15 and 34 were aware of the €1,000 tax rebate offered to mothers who made use of childcare services. Fewer than 8% of mothers were aware of subsidised childcare centres for those on low income.

It is unclear whether this low level of awareness was due to a lack of interest, or to inefficient promotion of the initiatives to those most likely to benefit from such incentives.


This study suggests that cultural barriers may still hinder a substantial number of economically inactive mothers from using childcare centres. However, from 1 April 2014 free childcare is available to all in Malta, and it remains to be seen whether these negative perceptions will shift as a result and women will start using childcare centres more.

Overall, this study suggests governments need to communicate their incentives to the target audience more effectively. To overcome resistance to childcare centres, more persuasive campaigns are needed to communicate the benefits of this kind of childcare to both the children and their parents.


National Commission for the Promotion of Equality (NCPE) (2012), Assessing the Skills of Inactive Women in Unlocking the Female Potential, NCPE, Blata l-Bajda, Malta.

Anna Borg, Centre for Labour Studies, University of Malta.

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