National Productivity Week 27th January 2025 | Visit Website

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Part-time work: lifeline or life sentence?

Part-time employment is often considered as a lifeline for women, enabling them to stay in or re-enter paid work even with high care responsibilities. Yet this lifeline may come with major disadvantages that may be difficult to escape. These disadvantages are likely to differ between types of part-time employment. Flexible working arrangements can be employee-focused to facilitate work-life balance, employer-focused to facilitate flexible scheduling, or a mixture of the two.

Over recent years ‘retention-type’ part-time jobs to enable continuous careers for women over the period of childbirth have expanded but more for higher skilled workers. However, in service and elementary occupations such as retail, social care or cleaning, working time is often targeted at matching varying demand, not at facilitating work-life balance. Both these types, at opposite ends of the spectrum of part-time employment, have very different implications both for workplace productivity and for women’s opportunities to lead productive lives.

Incentives to retain skills of working mothers

Now that women have increased their participation in both higher education and higher-level jobs, employers have major incentives to ensure that their talent is not lost at the point of childbirth. Rights to maternity leave and to request flexible working have reduced the tendency, common until the 2000s, for women to have to change to a lower-level job to work part-time. Retention part-time jobs should also aid productivity by preventing  general and  firm-specific human capital loss and may also be beginning to have some impact on closing the gender pay gap.

These recent improvements may enable some women to live productive lives but this is far from the end of the problem.

  • First, not all women can access retention-type part-time jobs. Where part-time jobs are organised around variations in demand, neither the work schedule nor its predictability may facilitate care responsibilities.
  • Second, it may be unclear what hours, for example, a half-time paid worker should work if salaried full-timers are doing long hours of unpaid overtime.
  • Third, the right to request flexible working up till now could not be transferred to a new employer because requests are mandated only after 6 months service. Consequently, job changing has not been an option even when pay or promotion opportunities proved disappointing. From  April 2024,  day one requests for flexible working will become possible but there is still no right to flexible working  and job adverts do not have to specify flexible opportunities.
  • A fourth problem is that career progression may stall due to employer doubts over the capacities or motivation of part-time employees. This may be based on presumptions that they are putting family first and therefore less productive or uninterested in training and development. Such beliefs can be self-fulfilling for, if career paths appear blocked, women may take on more family responsibilities. It is worth remembering that pre-pandemic employers were often adamant that remote working would never work. Similar prejudice may prevail about the productivity and potential of part-time employees.

Women in the UK also face obstacles and disincentives to remaining in or returning to full-time employment.  These include unaffordable childcare, no right to request a return to full-time work and the 2023 change in the graduate loan debt repayment system with the debt now cancelled only after 40 years, not 30.

Consequently, low earners and  particularly women working part-time will be saddled with the extra 9% tax on earnings over a threshold until they are in their 60s, a major disincentive to full-time work in later working life.  A further reason why women may not stay in or return to full-time employment is the long hours and excessive workloads in many full-time jobs – an issue we return to below.

Improving scope of part-time work 

Employer-focused part-time employment is mainly found in service work such as social care, retail and elementary occupations, where pay progression opportunities are low and part-time work accounts for half of the workforce. Many are on variable schedules and short guaranteed hours, thereby facing high pay and working-time insecurity. Part-time work is embedded in companies’ productivity strategies, with, for example in retail, short notice scheduling of short shifts and in social care unpaid time between clients.

These sectors do face fluctuating demands, but research by Lambert in the US found schedules varied more than the actual variation in demand, suggesting some scope for more predictable working time. Moreover,  exposure to insecurity  in income and hours if extending into midlife may, according to Donnelly have harmful effects on health and well-being, a situation particularly applicable to women. Overall, as Warren argues, by focusing on part-time as an aid to work-life balance its impact on insecurity of income and working time has been neglected.

Supporting well-being and development

Over a third of women employees are part-time so it is vital that this type of work supports women’s well-being and enables their development and realisation of their full potential. Women’s higher participation rates and educational investments have boosted growth over recent years; now we need policies to enable them to lead productive lives.

More affordable childcare would benefit all part-timers with care responsibilities and provide them with better opportunities.  Companies also need to focus on individual worker development and well-being, not just short-term gains.

For those in variable hours jobs financial security and predictable schedules need to be prioritised over flexibility. A new right to request more predictable schedules should help but it maintains the eligibility test of six months service. Countries such as France also provide rights to advance notice of schedule changes and rights for contractual hours to rise in line with actual hours.

For those in retention-type jobs a priority is to challenge stereotypes and reorganise work to enable part-timers to be better integrated into career paths. Reducing unpaid overtime expectations would facilitate integration of part-time with full-time staff in the workplace. Likewise, shortening full-time standard hours, as in the apparently successful 4-day week pilots, would help women stay in or return to full-time employment, thereby extending options for living a productive life.

Sustainable productivity growth requires policies that go beyond enabling part-time working to ensure the availability of part-time jobs that provide for decent working conditions, that allow for skill use and that enable development of potential over a full and productive working life.

This blog was written by Jill Rubery, Isabelle Bi-Swinglehurst and Anthony Rafferty as part of the project Gender, part-time work and job polarisation: the productivity risks