Women at work: difficulties achieving work–life balance

Patterns of employment among women in two sectors in Portugal have been put under the spotlight in a new study. The study looked at women working in the information, communications and technologies sector and in ‘new’ retail, characterised as supermarkets and shopping centres. The research focused on working time flexibility and the high incidence of temporary work in Portugal. It looked at factors which impact on women’s management of their work–life balance.


Women’s employment patterns in Portugal have been examined in a new study, New labour dynamics and the challenges of articulation with family life (in Portuguese, 1.14 MB PDF).

The research focused on two contrasting sub-sectors in the services industry.

Firstly it looked at the information, communications and technologies (ICT) sector. This included research into work at call centres as well as areas of ‘intensive knowledge activity’, such as telecommunications, IT content, computer software, and the provision of multimedia and audio-visual services.

It also looked at the ‘new’ retail sector, including large supermarkets and shopping centres.

For the study, 187 respondents were surveyed, 82 of them men and 105 women. Around 20 in-depth interviews were conducted with female workers from the selected sectors, and further interviews were carried out with company managers and other key stakeholders such as representatives from trade unions and public bodies.

This study was conducted in the metropolitan areas of Lisbon and Oporto and also covered the Aveiro area.

The women surveyed are relatively young. More than two-thirds (71%) were under 30 years of age, 20% were between 31 and 35, and only 9% were over 40. They had a relatively high level of education. Half had completed a medium or higher education course, and almost one fifth had completed the 12th grade, equivalent to upper secondary education, ISCED 3.

Many still lived with their parents (43%), 15% lived on their own, 6% lived with their children and could be described as single-parents. About 37% were married or cohabiting. About 40% of the respondents were mothers, mostly with children younger than six (65%).

Key findings

Working conditions in the new service sectors

According to this study, the employment contract situation for those surveyed emerges as a key differentiation for working conditions and life opportunities. Among the group of women surveyed, permanent contracts were associated with the professional groups of ‘senior officials and managers’, ‘specialists of intellectual and scientific occupations’, and ‘technicians and associate professionals’. There were found in the ICT sector. Precarious contracts were associated with ‘call centres operators’ and ‘online cash operators’.

Time management problems

This study concluded that women who had precarious employment contracts were also those who were less likely to be able to choose their working hours. They tended to be those more subject to inflexible working schedules. In call centres, the recruitment of young people, most of them students without a family, mitigated the conflict between working time and family commitments.

Time-management is particularly critical among workers in the retail sector. Due to low wages, women in this sector are unlikely to be able to afford support structures such as nurseries, crèches, kindergartens, and babysitting services. Those difficulties are accentuated by the scarcity of public family support services and facilities.

Flexibility of working time

According to the survey, the large distribution sector is characterised by irregular and changing working hours. Shift work is also frequent. The management of family and working life in this segment of activity tends to be hampered by frequent changes in work schedules. These generate the need for continuous rearrangements in family and personal life.

The uncertainty of working hours brings the additional difficulties of how to manage these schedules and how to juggle the needs of personal, family and social life. This, linked with working hours often extending to the late afternoon and evening, proves a serious obstacle to achieving work–life balance. Childcare is a major area of concern for employees who have to work nights, weekends or during holidays.

The author concludes that working time flexibility and job insecurity halt life plans and limit personal expectations. Individual autonomy, partnering and parenting are often put on hold by these workers.

Culture of presenteeism

In the ICT sector, with the exception of call centres, time devoted to paid work is particularly intensive. Very long working hours are attributed by the study to two factors. The study highlights professional contexts in which‘presenteeism’ is seen as a sign of high professional commitment and organisational loyalty. Long working hours are also put down to more subjective factors, such as individual motivation.

The study also examined the working lives of women who were more protected from precarious working conditions. Employees who could be regarded as having ‘privileged’ working conditions such as high salaries, qualified jobs and financial security, were subject to a model of time management that strongly conditions their quality of life. These women faced a conflict between the two worlds of professional career and family. All the women interviewed in this study who had senior positions in the ICT sector had ‘opted’ either to postpone motherhood or to forgo having children.


This study sheds new light on the situation of female workers in the ‘new service sectors’. These are clustered into two categories:

  • those who belong to the ‘bright’ segment of the new economy – a minority of women integrated into the technology and knowledge intensive areas;
  • those who belong to the ‘gloomy’ segment – working in the retail sector, in call centres and the large distribution centres (although there are wide differences between each type of occupation).

The study also shows that the women in the bright segment benefit from secure contractual relationships. They have well-paid and highly qualified jobs. The second group is often faced with degraded working conditions and the risk of frequent transition between precarious jobs.

Flexibility is experienced by both groups, but in different ways; extended working schedules for the ‘bright’, and shorter working hours, but diverse and unpredictable for the ‘gloomy’.

Flexible working time schedules not only create difficulties in work-family balance; they also reinforce social inequalities among women.

Heloísa Perista and Janine Nunes, CESIS




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