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Gendered Geographies of Regional Economies: Work-Life (Im)Balance and Socioeconomic Competitiveness

Gendered Geographies of Regional Economies: Work-Life (Im)Balance and Socioeconomic Competitiveness

With the shift to the New Economy, 'flexibility' for many workers has come to mean increased workloads, less predictable work schedules, and more unsocial work hours as firms demand they work longer and harder in ways which minimise labour costs. Simultaneously, household life has also become more complex with the decline of the extended family, increasing numbers of lone-parent households; and greater eldercare responsibilities in the context of increased life expectancy. Additionally, female labourforce participation rates continue to grow and an ever-increasing proportion of workers are part of dual earner households. The overall result of these synchronous changes for many workers is a complicated multi-variable balancing act between the competing demands of work and their responsibilities beyond the workplace, for which they have only finite resources of time and energy.

In response, the desirability and means of achieving an appropriate work-life 'balance' (WLB) has received ever-increasing attention from governments, managers, trade unions, academics and the media, not least in Ireland and the UK which currently have the longest work hours of all EU member states. However, despite the profound social importance of WLB (as a potential means for improving workers' quality of life, reducing gender inequality, and combating the work pressures that are destabilising households and societal integration) many scholars have also come to the conclusion that employers are unlikely to introduce meaningful WLB policies and practices unless they can identify 'bottom-line' economic advantages that arise from their implementation. Problematically however, the so-called 'business case' for WLB remains highly uncertain and suffers from a number of methodological and conceptual limitations.

Within this context, this ESRC-funded research (grant number: RES-000-222-1574, beginning April 2006) involves a 24 month inter-regional comparative study of the impacts of WLB provision on the socio-economic performance of IT firms within two high tech regional economies: Cambridge, UK and Dublin, Ireland. The project is also affiliated to the ESRC Gender Equality Network (GeNet). The research aims are:

  1. to reposition and advance the 'business case' for WLB through a mutual gains approach that examines employees' social needs beyond the workplace - as parents and citizens - alongside the economic competitiveness requirements of firms;
  2. to improve our understanding of the impacts of, and mechanisms through which, different WLB polices and practices shape the learning and innovation processes underpinning firms' abilities to compete in the knowledge economy; and
  3. to explore the role of different regional institutional frameworks in conditioning the impact of WLB provision on firms' socio-economic performance in regional industrial systems.

Overall, the research is located firmly within current inter-disciplinary and policy debates on the future of work and socially sustainable regional competitiveness; and within the ESRC's thematic priorities of 'Economic Performance and Development' and 'Work and Organisations'.

Table 1: Methodological advances of the proposal research

Conceptual and methodological limits of previous WLB business case evaluative studies (identified by Glass and Estes 1997; Glass and Finley 2002; Lewis et al. 2003) Own approach overcomes limits of previous studies by...
Lack of comparative work at regional & national scales

Comparative case study (Cambridge, UK c.f. Dublin, Ireland)

Business case analyses sideline social equity issues at level of the worker

Dual focus on social needs of workers alongside economic competitiveness requirements of the firm

Lack of focus on male workers (perpetuates false image of WLB as a 'women-only' issue)

Male workers analysed alongside female workers

Over-reliance on single-company surveys (restricts industrial base to which study can be generalised)

Multiple companies surveyed in each regional economy, and cross-matched across the two case study regions

Over-reliance on large-firm studies (relative less knowledge on what happens in smaller corporate settings)

Explicit focus on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)

Inadequate measurement of specific policies and /or policy combinations

Attention given to (i) function; (ii) intensity; and (iii) formalisation of different policies and combinations of policies and practices.

Inadequate measurement of outcomes - focus only on measures of 'revealed competitiveness'

Focus also on mechanisms and processes of learning, innovation and knowledge production, as the underlying sources of firms' economic competitiveness

Table 2: Common dimensions of workers' experience of negative work-to-home spillovers

Type of incursions imported from work Nature

  • Unpaid overtime
  • Taking work home
  • Working public holidays
  • Not taking all of annual leave
  • Working even when feel unwell
  • Not having time to take refreshment or lunch break

  • Belief that need to work long hours to be successful
  • Exhaustion and stress
  • Relationships under strain / arguments
  • Relationship with children suffers
  • Other undesirable health outcomes
  • Missing out on leisure time or hobbies
  • Deciding not to have children

Table 3: Corporate response: WLB policies and practices that form focus of study

Policy Type Description Examples
Flexible Work Arrangements

Policies designed to give workers greater 'flexibility' in the scheduling and location of work hours while not decreasing average work hours per week

  • Flextime (flexible beginning or end work time, sometimes with core hours)
  • Flexplace / Telecommuting (all or part of the week occurs at home)
  • Job sharing (one job undertaken by 2 or more persons)
  • Annualised hours
Reduced Work Hours

Policies designed to reduce workers' hours

  • Part-time work
  • Compressed work weeks (employees compact total working hours into 4 days rather than 5)
  • Term-time working
Practical Help with Child Care

Policies designed to provide 'workplace social support' for parents

  • Employer-subsidised childcare - in-site
  • Employer-subsidised childcare - off-site
  • Information service for childcare
  • Workplace parent support group
  • Breast-feeding facilities
  • Policy of actively informing staff of benefits available
Personal Leave

Policies and benefits that give leave to provide time for personal commitments & family caregiving

  • Extra-statutory maternity leave
  • Extra-statutory paternity leave
  • Adoption leave
  • Unpaid leave during school holidays
  • Guaranteed Christmas leave
  • Use of own sick leave to care for sick children
  • Leave for caring for elder relatives
  • Emergency leave
  • Study leave
  • Sports achievement leave


Publications underpinning this project include:

  1. James, A., Gray, M., Martin, R.L. and Plummer, P., 2004. (Expanding) the Role of Geography in Public Policy, Environment and Planning A 36(11): 1901-1905.