Work-life balance in the ICT and retail sectors

In the Portuguese ICT and retail trade sectors, women in particular suffer from a poor work-life balance, research carried out between 2000 and 2004 has found. Occupational and educational level, working hours and contractual status influence the possibility of hiring domestic help and, by consequence, the possibility for women to advance in their career.

A study developed between October 2000 and July 2004 analysed the results of a survey carried out among a number of Portuguese companies in the information and communication technologies (ICT) and the retail trade sectors. One of the findings of this study is that the female workers experienced more difficulties in terms of work-life balance than male workers, and that this was particularly the case among women with less qualified occupations, lower wages and worse contractual situations.

According to the study, 43% of the women surveyed who were living in a couple admitted that managing a work-life balance was not easy; in the case of men, the proportion was clearly lower at only 20%. However, when the sample is analysed as a whole (people living, or not living, in a couple), the proportion of women reporting difficulties in terms of work-life balance is clearly lower, while the proportion of men is maintained. These figures support the thesis that, in a couple, a greater burden of work falls on women, whereas living or not living in a couple has little impact on the way men manage their work and family life.

Causes of difficulty

Only a few of the respondents stated exactly what factors contributed to the difficulties in creating a work-life balance. Generally, the men referred to the fact that their occupation was absorbing and that they had inflexible working hours. The women also mentioned these factors but emphasised that their working hours constrained the time available for family.

About 46% of married women with children described achieving a work-life balance as particularly difficult. However, women with more qualified occupations, particularly managers and professionals, are more likely to have paid domestic help than others. This is partly because they are very involved in their occupation, both from an objective point of view (long working hours) as well as from a subjective perspective (stronger commitment motivated by higher responsibilities). Nonetheless, the study also found that, although they can count on paid help, there remains a conflict in the management of different times and demands, associated with a certain feeling of guilt.

Help options available

There are clear differences between part-time and full-time workers. While almost every part-time female worker (91%) reported that they could easily achieve a work-life balance, the proportion of full-time female workers with the same opinion is lower, at only 69%. All of the men working part time stated that it was easy to reconcile their occupational life and their family/personal life. Most women working part time stated that they did not have any help (78%), whereas men in this position are inclined to count on family help (56%) or on someone hired to do the domestic tasks (33%).

Type of domestic help, according to sex (%)

It should be emphasised that, among the people surveyed, 53% of the men and only 37% of the women reported that they benefit from any kind of help (see Figure). Men declared that they had more helping structures, whether these were paid services (34%, compared with 23.5% of women) or family help (19%, compared with 14% of women). Within the options of family help, mothers are the main help providers (70% of cases).

However, there are striking differences among women. This study underlines the relationship between the occupation and the presence (or not) of domestic help: almost 47% of women using paid services have an occupation at managerial level, while only 7% are retail clerks/sellers.

Domestic help used by working women, by occupational group, education, working hours and contractual status (% in column)
Domestic help used by female workers
  Paid domestic services Domestic help provided by relatives
Managers 46.7  
Professionals 33.3  
Call centre operators   20
Retail employees: clerk/seller 6.7 10
Supermarket cashier 13.3 70
Total 100 100
Basic (9 years) 5.3 9.1
Secondary (11 years) 5.3 9.1
Secondary (12 years) 10.5 36.4
Degree 57.9 18.2
Masters degree 21.1 27.3
Total 100 100
Working time    
Full-time 94.7 72.7
Part-time 5.3 27.3
Total 100 100
Contract status    
Permanent 94.7 30
Fixed-term 5.3 50
Temporary agency - 20
Total 100 100

Source: Casaca, 2005

Another important finding is that the option of domestic help is linked to the educational level of the female workers. The survey data confirm the idea that women with lower education have more difficulties in finding well paid jobs; therefore, it is harder for them to pay for domestic help. As the table shows, almost 80% of women contracting paid services have, at least, a degree.

Finally, it must be noted that women with permanent contracts and who are working full time benefit more from paid domestic help. This means that women in higher occupation levels and with a better contractual situation are more relieved from domestic work. Conversely, women with less qualified occupations, lower wages and precarious contractual situations have a heavier burden to carry in terms of household chores - which creates further obstacles to career advancement.

Survey methodology

This survey was conducted in the sub-sectors of the information and communication technologies sector (namely, telecommunications, computers and software, audio-visual, communication and imaging, and call centres), and of the retail trade sector (including large stores). The study was developed in eight companies of the ICT sector, four companies of the retail trade sector and four temporary work agencies (providing workers to the ICT and retail sectors).

The survey was carried out among workers in the companies where it had been developed and in other companies of the same sectors. It included the following occupations: managers, professionals, technicians and associate professionals, clerks, service workers and shop and market sales workers, craft and related trades workers, elementary occupations, and call centre operators. In all, 187 individuals (82 men and 105 women) were surveyed by means of a questionnaire applied during a face-to-face interview.


Casaca, S.F., Flexibilidade de Emprego, Novas Temporalidades de Trabalho e Relações de Género, (Flexible employment, new temporalities of work and gender relations ) , Doctoral thesis, Higher Institute for Economics and Management, University of Technology, Lisbon, 2005.

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