Part time work is leaving women undervalued and underpaid: Let’s end the part time for ‘balance’ myth

Part time work is leaving women undervalued and underpaid: Let’s end the part time for ‘balance’ myth

Natalie Firth
It’s 2019, and part time work is still the option a large number of women choose when they return to work from parental leave.

Part time work has been a norm for women for decades in Australia.

Even today, mothers in particular believe that the ideal solution to the juggling family-work act is to “officially” sign up to work 30 hours or less per week — often without initially realising they will almost always spend more always working (and even be expected to go over by their employers), while collecting a much smaller salary.

In fact, it’s so common that out of the 46.9 per cent of women employed in Australia in 2019, 21.6 per cent were working part-time.

Overall, women make up 37 per cent of all full-time employees — and nearly 70 per cent all ALL part-time employees.

Working in recruitment, I see and talk to so many employees and employers (not to mention friends) about this issue, and our continued obsession with using terms like part-time and full-time when we discuss flexibility.

We are still, well into the 21st century, preoccupied by irrelevant, process-driven work days dependant on set hours rather than outcomes, and I think this outdated work structure needs to change.

The eight-hours a day, nine to five full-time structure, and the three or four-day part-time arrangement are artificial constructions left over from the the 1900s, and they are making so many women I know feel terrible when they simply do not need to.

School hours being 9 to 3.30pm don’t help this situation and only add an extra layer of complexity.

I can’t tell you how many times I have had my female friends tell me they think they are failing – failing at work, failing at home and just not coping with the “balancing act” that they have been told they should be able to manage.

The reality is that most people have families and work that they need to manage, not to mention many other commitments. And if we agree that men and women should get the same chance to have a fulfilling professional life, it stands to reason that both should contribute equally to the family unit.

And that means flexibility; not one person (let’s face it, it’s going to be the woman) taking on a part-time role.

Despite workplaces waxing lyrical about the virtues of part time and their openness to accommodate mothers coming back to work, the mere term “part-time” term carries with it connotations of only half in, half involved, half committed.

It’s the full-timer’s lesser sister, and as soon as you take on the title, you became tainted by its bad rep — while still doing as much work as you did before and being paid less!

According to Laura Vanderkam — a writer and time management consultant who, to write her book I Know How She Does It, used time-diary studies to track 1,001 days in the lives of women who earn six figure salaries and also have kids — many women on official part-time schedules work well outside their part-time hours.

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Vanderkam wrote that “most put in more than 35 hours per week [with] one part-time consultant logging 47 hours one week, and 53 hours during another”.

“Even though the part-timers had often taken pay cuts, and risked being seen as less committed to their careers than full-time colleagues, they weren’t necessarily working that much less,” she said.

When she decided to study people who worked part time, Queensland University of Technology academic Natalie Smith found that the roles for nearly half of the participants, and across all industries, had not been changed at all when they moved to part-time.

Performance targets and workload remained the same; only the pay had changed.

Which is why, when my female friends come to me in a panic saying they can’t possibly go back to full-time work, or that they can’t apply for a full-time role, I say bollocks.

My response?

“Take the job and then negotiate flexibility”, I tell them. “It’s your right”.

Just because you have a child with whom you’ve spent the last year or so at home doesn’t mean your previous amazing work experience goes out the window.

Don’t feel like the only work you can do is “part-time”, just because that’s all you’ve ever seen. Be creative. We live in a world where we no longer have to be chained to our desks, working our designated 8 hour days just to satisfy the boss.

Go for that promotion, go for that ‘full time’ role, and then push to negotiate the flexibility that is owed to you.

You’re good at what you do and being a mother doesn’t devalue your skills or time.


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