Laura Dewar is author of a Working Families analysis of how the Civil Service advertises – or doesn’t – flexible work opportunities. Here she outlines her findings and her views.
Part-time work forms a major part of women’s lifetime pattern of employment, with over 42% of women in employment working part-time (2004). In many respects, this can be a positive choice, allowing women to combine paid work with their other important role of caring for others. However, working part-time comes at a heavy cost; the difference in earnings between men in full-time employment compared to women part-timers now stands at a whopping 36.3%. This is partly due to the lack of good quality jobs available part-time which forces many women to take jobs below their potential; a waste of their talent and an under-use of experience and skills for the economy.
The right to request flexible working, including wanting to work part-time hours only applies once someone has been with an employer for at least six months. This means that parents who are attempting to enter the job market or want to change jobs are not able to exercise this right.
It would seem that in order to work part-time you need to first build up trust with an employer. How realistic would it be for a single mother with two small children entering the job market for the first time in five years to take on a full-time job, organise her children’s full-time childcare, settle her children and then after six months request to change to part-time hours and change her childcare arrangements?
This also implies that the request to work part-time is accepted by an organisation that may not necessarily be the case. The law as it stands forces people who want to work part-time to take what they can get, largely poorly paid and insecure employment.
Working Families research shows that there are many excellent examples of employers who offer high quality jobs on reduced hours at every level of responsibility in the private, public and voluntary sectors. Indeed Working Families have identified that flexible working can improve the loyalty that staff have towards an employer and can contribute to higher productivity. However, Working Families are aware through their helpline work that securing a good quality part-time role when someone is job seeking can be a challenge.
‘Secret Shopper’ research to establish what it was like for someone looking for a part-time job
In September of last year I carried out a ‘secret shopper’ exercise on jobs advertised externally in the Civil Service. I wanted to establish whether the good practice of a number of Departments and the progressive equality aims of the Civil Service were filtering through to recruitment practice on the ground. I wanted to see what it was like for an individual seeking to find a part-time or job-share role. I found that of the seventy jobs advertised 71% were advertised as full-time.
Of interest here is the range of jobs being restricted to full-time hours, the jobs ranged widely from administrative to managerial roles. The comfort zone for most Departments was to seek full-time applications for full-time posts without asking themselves whether it would be practical for someone to do the job part-time. There was little evidence that Departments had looked at the business needs for posts before advertising and seeking full-time employees. Some of the full-time jobs were on further investigation open to possible part-time working but the way the posts were advertised might have put off potential applicants. Finally, there was a poor understanding of job-sharing and how this would work in practical terms for an outside recruit.
There were eighteen jobs advertised as a choice of full-time and/or a combination of part-time or as a job-share (ten from one department). Some of the responses showed the efforts that departments are making to open up job opportunities for people who may want to work part-time including senior roles with significant management responsibility. What became clear from the analysis was the importance of departments having an open mind about job design before a job is advertised. Focusing on the skills and experience and business needs for a role rather than the hours that someone can work.
We live in a society that values employment and also says that it values family life. In order to do justice to both we may need to have a radical rethink about how work is designed, we may have to stop thinking of full-time employment as the Holy Grail. The time that parents spend with their children is valuable and the time that they spend at work should be valued. Part-time work should not be seen as the poor relation. We should be designing and advertising roles that are available on full-time or part-time basis rather than thinking that most roles can only be worked full-time. To do anything less we are condemning millions of women to jobs below their potential and wasting their skills and experience.
Laura Dewar is a trustee at Working Families. A summary of the Analysis “We need to talk about …hours” is available from the charity’s website and the full report can be purchased as a publication. Laura has recently taken on the role of Policy and Parliamentary Officer at the Single Parent Action Network.