Are Working Mothers Falling Into The Part-Time Trap?

It’s seen as the ideal solution for work/life balance, but is the current model of part-time working holding women back? And if so, how can we fix it?

Part Time Trap

by Maria Lally |
Updated on

The new Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, is to announce plans to tighten benefit rules for part-time workers. The new rules will require those who claim benefits and work up to 15 hours a week to increase their earnings or face having their benefits reduced. This matters for all part-time workers, but it will particularly impact mothers, 38% of whom work part-time.

For mothers, part-time working has long presented itself as the chance to have it all. Or, at least, have the best of both worlds. We get to keep working, plus have a day or two off to hang out with our children and keep childcare costs down.

But, as anybody who has worked parttime will know, there are a few drawbacks. Or, as former First Lady Michelle Obama put it in her 2018 autobiography, Becoming, it’s ‘something of a trap’. In her pre-White House days, Michelle went part-time at the University of Chicago when her eldest daughter Malia, now 23, was born, thinking she could be ‘both career woman and perfect mother’. ‘At work, I was still attending all the meetings I always had while also grappling with most of the same responsibilities,’ she wrote.

‘The only real difference was that I now made half my original salary and was trying to cram everything into a twenty-hour week. If a meeting ran late, I’d end up tearing home at breakneck speed to fetch Malia… To me, it felt like a sanity-warping double bind. Part-time work was meant to give me more freedom, but mostly it left me feeling as if I were only half doing everything.’

Sanity-warping double bind aside, there’s also a part-time penalty, paid mostly by mothers. Part-time jobs were hit hardest in the pandemic, according to a Labour Force Survey. Another recent study, from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), found those who work part-time after having children are more likely to suffer the extremes of the gender pay gap, which was largely due to lower levels of pay progression among part-time workers.

And this matters for women, given they hold three quarters of all part-time jobs in the UK. ‘There is long-term inequality to consider, too,’ says Christine Armstrong, author of The Mother Of All Jobs: How To Have Children And A Career And Stay Sane. ‘Part-time workers have smaller pensions, and so if a couple break up, the woman has less earning potential.’

So, is it the ultimate paradox that while part-time work helps keep women in the workplace, it holds them back at the same time? And does it have to be this way?

‘Part-time work is a great enabler of women in the workplace, especially after children, but it can trap them in roles, meaning less pay and progression,’ says Emma Stewart, CEO of Timewise, the UK’s leading flexible working consultancy. ‘Part-time working is often a reactive move by employers to keep staff – usually mothers returning from maternity leave – which means parttime jobs are rarely advertised, and we know there’s a real lack of senior part-time roles.’

Which leads to part-time workers – again, overwhelmingly women – staying in jobs that are beneath their level of talent and experience. ‘My company let me go to three days a week after my second child was born,’ says one friend of mine, who works as a marketing manager. ‘I’ve outgrown the job, but I don’t feel I can apply for a better one because I’m not sure I’d find another part-time job. So, while my husband’s career has followed a linear path, with promotions and pay rises every few years, mine has pretty much stalled.’

And there you have the part-time trap. ‘It’s one of the biggest drivers of the gender pay gap,’ says Emma. ‘What we need is for employers to normalise part-time working, and to challenge the image of it being something only mothers do.'

Currently, just 15% of men work part-time, compared with 42% of women.

‘Companies need to create a culture where fathers feel comfortable, and will not be penalised, for asking to reduce their hours when a baby comes along. But, let’s also be honest, the reason more men don’t want to do it is because part-time workers can get trapped and don’t progress as quickly. To get more men to do it, we have to tackle those things and de-stigmatise part-time working.’

The other issue with it is that, as Michelle Obama discovered, few employers think to redesign the five day-a-week job that’s now got to be done in three. ‘Many women end up working on their days off or in the evening,’ says Christine. ‘They’re often so grateful to be part-time that they work longer hours, yet they still don’t get the promotions or recognition that full time workers enjoy.’

‘We don’t always adjust our expectations when our hours go down,’ agrees Emma. ‘If you are part-time, ask yourself whether what you’re expected to do is reasonable, given your hours – and come up with solutions for your manager if it isn’t. Do you need a job-share partner on the days you don’t work? Do you need to be in every meeting if you’re only in the office three days a week?’

Lastly, don’t apologise for being parttime. ‘You’re bringing talent and experience to the workplace while saving your company money,’ says Emma. ‘The rise of part-time working means droves of women don’t disappear from the workplace when they have children, giving companies a wider, more diverse pool of talent to choose from. And, because you get to spend some time outside of work, you’re probably a healthier and happier employee for it.’

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