Tracey Leghorn - The Best of Both Worlds: Combining Work and Motherhood on a 24/7 Planet

In this article, Tracey Leghorn of the Centre for Labour Market Studies at the School of Management describes her research which forms a contemporary investigation of women’s work attachment in the demanding 24/7 work environment of NHS emergency ambulance services.

Ambulance responding to an emergency call
In ambulance services across the UK, dedicated and skilled staff work 365 days a year, 24 hours a day to make sure patients receive the best possible care. In the financial year 2012/13, the east of England ambulance service received 929,134 emergency calls from the 5,847,000 population of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire (Census 2011). It is within this 7,500 square mile, diverse mix, of rural, coastal and urban areas that more than 950 paramedics and over a thousand more clinical staff are employed to respond to emergency 999 calls at any hour, of any day. More than 39% of these paramedics are women, and, despite many of them also being mothers, 78% of them work full-time on 24/7 rosters. 

About My Research

Despite the dramatic intensification of women into the workplace following WWII (Jenson, Hagen and Reddy 1988) and thus many women working outside the home (particularly working class women), there are those that argue that fifty years ago there were two mutually exclusive choices available to women: work or motherhood (Nieva and Gutek 1982). But women’s place is no longer at home raising children while their spouse brings in the household income (Chapman 1987). Throughout the capitalist world, the feminisation of the labour force has become a fact of life (Beechey 1987).

By 2008 the proportion of men vis-à-vis women employed in the UK had reached 79% and 70% respectively with the highest employment rates for both sexes being amongst those in their prime childrearing years, age 25 to 49. However, despite what these statistics might infer, the presence of a dependent child still continues to have a substantial impact on women’s employment. Not in relation to the proportion of women in the workforce per sa but in their bias towards part-time working and the unskilled, administrative, lower level jobs they perform in comparison to men (Labour Market Survey, 2008). 

In the associated literature, issues around working hours focuses generally on the part-time versus full-time debate as opposed to consideration of when those hours are required to be worked and the impact of that on women’s life choices and career options. It is more difficult for women than men to combine work and family life (Nieva and Gutek 1982) both in a practical and psychological sense (Apter 1985). Due to the 24/7 basis of emergency services and the nature of the activities undertaken by paramedics, these difficulties are particularly heightened. 

Female paramedic at work
In ambulance services the working hours of paramedics must align with 24/7-365 patient demand. This peaks in the evenings, at weekends, during school holidays, over winter and particularly over the Christmas and New Year festivities – thus predominantly when parents want/need to be present with their children and/or when childcare provision is not readily available. In addition, there is no certainty about ‘clocking off’ on time – paramedics work remotely ‘out in the field’ and regularly work beyond shift finish times when providing emergency care to a patient or transporting them to hospital. 

The psychological demands of the role are also particularly challenging due to the inherent exposure to life-critical situations and other natural and man-made traumatic and catastrophic events. Thus, the difficulties associated with combining work and motherhood are particularly acute and female paramedics must grapple with the practical difficulties 365-24/7 working requires as well as their inherent psychological need to ‘be there’ for [save the lives of] patients in their hour of need [whatever time of day that is] against their need to ‘be there’ for their own children and loved ones. 

However, despite this, 39% of all frontline paramedics within the east of England Ambulance Service are women and the vast majority of them work fulltime hours on 24/7 rosters. This situation therefore gives rise to the question: why is it that women appear to be successfully combining motherhood and a professional fulltime career in one of the most practically and psychologically difficult work roles/settings, in contrast to their position in the workplace generally? 

Research Approach

Adopting feminist methodology, the research will be completed through the analysis of qualitative data from semi-structured interviews with more than 20 paramedics.    

Research Findings

The context in which women make their life choices is made up of a complex system of variables, which dependent on individual circumstances, potentially act to psychologically and practically constrain women’s choices. These include, for example, their immediate situational context, Government policy, ideologies and women’s own views [preferences] (Hakim 2000; Hakim 1996; Hakim 2002) as well as the structure of work. 

At the heart of the research is the question of whether women are helpless and powerless ‘victims’ of these factors and/or influences, or whether they are increasingly becoming active agents who are free to determine and ‘fully realise’ their individual preferences without constraint or restriction (Hakim 1991; 1995; 1996). In debates related to the ‘dual burden’ and ‘separate spheres’, home and work are conceptualised as a set of constraints that are external to the actor which impact on them but the basis of women’s social position is analysed as arising from the unavoidable and subject tensions of the ‘feminine dilemma’ (Beechey 1987:27) that is associated with ‘Women’s Two Roles’ (Myrdal and Klein 1956) at the individual level (Brannen and Moss 1991: 6). The emotional dimension in women’s choices [dilemma] must therefore not be underestimated or overlooked. This relates to women’s inner voices, their maternal desires, instincts and guilt. In fact this maternal propensity has been argued to be the most powerful and unavoidable factor that has ultimately determined women’s subservient place in the workplace (Beechey 1987:27). However, it may be that women’s psychological [emotional] attachment to work is increasingly becoming a force against this?  If this is the case, this may give rise to increased choices.

It is well known that paramedics have a high level of job fulfilment [work attachment]. By investigating the work attachment of female paramedics in the challenging work setting which has been described, the research aims to establish whether high levels of psychological attachment to work, can drive individual preferences to overcome the inner voice, the practical difficulties and the million and one demands that motherhood brings with it, so that women can successfully combine work and motherhood.  Based on the fact that female paramedics appear to be successfully combining motherhood with one of the most practically and psychologically difficult 24/7 careers, the argument follows that, if they can combine work and motherhood, anyone can. It thus follows that women are not powerless victims but instead active agents and their position in the workplace is highly reflective of where they choose to be. Further, that in relation to career choices, those can, and do, extend to demanding 24/7 work settings. 


  • Beechey, Veronica.  (1987) ‘Unequal Work’, Verso. 
  • Brannen, Julia and Moss, Peter (1991) Managing Mothers – Dual Earner Households After Maternity Leave, London: Unwin Hyman. 
  • Chapman, Jane (1987) ‘Women Working It Out’, Manpower Services Commission.
  • Hakim, C. (1993) ‘The Myth of Rising Female Employment’, Work, Employment and Society Notes and Issues’, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 97-120.  Referred to in CLMS Course Notes, M2BUS2: 16). 
  • Hakim, C. (1995) ‘Five feminist myths about women’s employment’, British Journal of Sociology, 46(3): 429-55.  Referred to in Bruegel, I. (1996) ‘Whose myths are they anyway?’ British Journal of Sociology, vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 175-177. 
  • Hakim, C. (1996) Key Issues in Women’s Work, London: The Athlone Press Ltd.  Referred to in Crompton, R. and Harris, F. (1998) ‘Explaining women’s employment patterns: ‘orientations to work’ revisited’, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 49, Issue 1, pp. 118-136. 
  • Hakim, C. (1996) Key Issues in women’s Work: Female Heterogeneity and the Polarization of Women’s Employment, London: Athlone Press. 
  • Hakim, C. (2002) ‘Lifestyle preferences as determinants of women’s differential labour market careers’, Work and Occupations, 29(4): 428-59
  • Hakim, C. (2000) Work-Lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century: Preference Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Jenson, Jane; Hagen, Elisabeth, and Reddy, Ceallaigh (1988) ‘Feminization of the Labour Force – Paradoxes and Promises’, Polity Press.
  • Labour Force Survey (LFS), April-June 2008, Office for National Statistics.
  • Myrdal, Alva and Klein, Viola (1956) Women’s Two Roles: Home and Work, New York Humanities Press.
  • Nieva, Veronica F., and Gutek, Barbara A. (1982) ‘Women and Work’, CBS Educational and Professional Publishing.
  • 2011 Census – Population and Household Estimates for England and Wales, March 2011, Office for National Statistics, 2012.

About Tracey Leghorn

Tracey LeghornTracey Leghorn is a research student working towards completion of her doctoral degree in the Centre for Labour Market Studies at the School of Management. Tracey is the Associate Director of HR with the East of England Ambulance Services and Director of All About HR Ltd.

Tracey is supervised by Dr Henrietta O’Connor and Dr John Goodwin.

Centre for Labour Market Studies at the School of Management
University of Leicester
University Road

Tracey will present her work at the Festival of Postgraduate Research 27 June 2013 - see Tracey's Festival poster.

The Festival is open to all members of the University community and the public - book your place here.

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