Women in the Workplace

WIW 81

Written evidence submitted by Dr Linda Grant, Sheffield Hallam University and Professor Sue Yeandle, University of Leeds

What more should be done to promote part-time work at all levels of the workplace and to ensure that both women and men have opportunities to gain senior positions within an organisation while working part time?

1. This submission arises from the Gender and Employment in Local Labour Markets (GELLM) research programme, which undertook research across 12 local labour markets in England (Yeandle 2009). The programme was funded by a European Social Fund award to Professor Sue Yeandle, with match funding from 12 English local authorities, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the TUC. The GELLM research reports are available at: http://circle.leeds.ac.uk/projects/completed/labour-equalities/gellm/.

2. One focus of the GELLM programme was a study of women's part-time employment in the public and private sectors (Grant, Yeandle and Buckner 2005; Grant, Yeandle and Buckner 2006). This explored why women are employed in low paid part-time jobs which are below their full potential in the labour market, i.e. why women take part-time jobs which fail to use their skills, experience and qualifications.

3. This was a substantial study which included a survey of women working in 22 workplaces in the public and private sectors in six contrasting localities in England (Camden, Leicester, Thurrock, Trafford, Wakefield and West Sussex), where rather different patterns of female labour force participation had been found (Buckner, Tang and Yeandle 2004, 2005). The research was undertaken in 2004-05 and comprised: face-to-face interviews with senior managers in all the selected workplaces; a survey of women workers (333 women completed questionnaires giving details of their employment histories); 89 face-to-face interviews with part-time women workers whose survey responses showed they were working 'below their potential'; three focus group discussions with 29 trade union representatives; and analysis of statistical data on employment in all six local labour markets, including a detailed look at part-time employment.

4. The study revealed that over half (54%) of the part-time women workers surveyed were not using all of their labour market skills, experience and qualifications in their current jobs (Grant et al 2006: 14).

5. To test this finding, the Equal Opportunities Commission undertook a national survey in 2004 which confirmed the GELLM result and showed the scale of this problem. Nationally, 3.6 million part-time workers (51%) were found to be working below their potential (Darton and Hurrell 2005; EOC 2005).

6. The detailed evidence in the GELLM study was analysed to investigate why so many women who work part-time are employed 'below their potential'.

7. The study found that the limited availability of good quality part-time jobs on the open labour market is an important factor. Thus, if women leave their employment, for example to have children and care for a family, when they return to the labour market, if they wish to work part-time most of the jobs available to them are of poor quality. Specifically, the part-time jobs available on the open labour market tend to lack opportunities for training, career progression and promotion. The quality of the part-time jobs available to women seeking part-time work was a source of considerable frustration and disappointment to many of the women interviewed, many of whom were very conscious that their potential contribution at work was not being accessed by their current employer and managers. The research concluded that although many women seek part-time work, they nevertheless want to use, rather than waste, their skills, experience and qualifications.

9. Other research firmly supports the GELLM finding that the majority of the part-time jobs available on the open labour market are of poor quality. In 2007, 30% of all those working part-time worked in the bottom 10 jobs (in terms of pay), compared with only 7% of full-time workers (Jones and Dickerson 2007: xiii). The 2001 Census showed that just 19% of all part-time women employees worked in the three highest paid occupational groups, while 59% worked in the four lowest paid occupational groups (Grant 2009: 119), compared with 45% and 26% respectively for women employed full-time (Grant et al 2006: 11).

10. There are a number of dimensions to the poor quality of the part-time jobs widely available to women on the open labour market. Hourly pay tends to be low (Harkness 2002; Manning and Petrongolo 2004; Grant et al 2005, 2006). Access to training, including training that would enhance opportunities for progression at work, is restricted (Francesconi and Gosling 2005; Grant et al 2005, 2006) and promotion opportunities tend to be rare (O'Reilly and Fagan 1998; Women and Equality Unit 2003; Jenkins 2004; Grant et al 2005, 2006).

11. Typically, job content and employee autonomy are limited in part-time jobs. Tasks tend to be repetitive, employees lack opportunities to exercise responsible decision-making over their jobs, and the amount of flexibility with respect to hours of work and start and finish times is limited, undermining the capacity to combine work with family responsibilities (Grant et al 2005; Grant et al 2006; Grant 2009).

12. Why are so few good quality part-time jobs available on the open labour market?

12.1. Part of the answer lies in the informal processes and decisions of managers within workplaces. In many workplaces the balance between full-time and part-time jobs tends to remain fairly constant year on year because managers tend to replace 'like with like', part-time with part-time and full-time with full-time employees (Grant et al 2005; Grant et al 2006).

12.2. Secondly, there is more formal and conscious resistance to designing good quality part-time jobs. Some managers argue that the tasks involved in more senior, good quality jobs cannot be undertaken on a part-time basis (Grant et al 2005; Grant et al 2006). Employing part-time workers in these jobs, these managers claimed, would lead to a situation where uncompleted tasks would fall to other senior post holders to complete and essential decisions would not be taken. However, this argument cannot be sustained, since women in senior positions who remain in their jobs after maternity leave often negotiate part-time contracts and successfully undertake senior roles on a part-time basis, and many 24/7 businesses operate efficiently without senior managers being continuously available.

12.3. A further factor is that the costs of recruiting and employing workers are broadly similar for full-time and part-time workers, while the returns on investment for part-time workers are lower because they work fewer hours (Manning and Petrongolo 2004, p28). However this finding must be seen in context. Part-time employees are frequently used by employers to deliver greater flexibility, give them access to a wider range of employee talent, and eliminate the economic inefficiencies which arise when workers have to be paid even though demand for goods/services is low at particular times of the day/week or year (see paras. 13).

12.4. Prejudice is also important (Tomlinson 2006: Grant et al 2005, 2006). For example, managers say they feel that if a good quality job is advertised as part-time on the open labour market the calibre of candidates will be inferior to that of the candidates attracted to a full-time job offer, although this claim has not been tested in research. Part-time workers are often also unfairly characterised by managers as less loyal, less flexible and less reliable, a point refuted by the GELLM study evidence.

12.5. To extend the availability of good quality part-time jobs on the open labour market, it will be necessary to work closely with employers to reveal and challenge widespread informal and formal practices and prejudice. Employers' attention should be drawn to examples of successful part-time working at senior levels and of successful recruitment to these jobs. It is also necessary to provide evidence of the many highly skilled, well-qualified women looking for part-time jobs but currently unable to find suitable positions.

13. Why are the part-time jobs typically available on the open labour market of such poor quality?

13.1. Part of the answer to this question involves a consideration of the reasoning employers use to construct part-time jobs.

13.2 One group of part-time jobs, which we refer to as 'task-based part-time jobs', are designed as part-time as a result of managers' perceptions that certain tasks lend themselves to part-time working (Grant et al 2005, 2006). 'Task-based part-time jobs' are based on a view that particular tasks can be completed in a limited number of hours e.g. cleaning an office or hospital ward, providing care to an elderly person, or offering support services to pupils in a classroom setting. Employers evaluate the length of time required to fulfil a particular task and design jobs on this basis. The aim is to use part-time employment as a means of avoiding unnecessary wage costs.

13.2. Another group of part-time jobs, which we refer to as 'demand-based part-time jobs',  are designed as part-time because, employers argue, the worker is only required during a part of the working day or working week (Grant et al 2005, 2006). 'Demand-based part-time jobs' include jobs such as checkout operator in a supermarket, assembly worker in manufacturing, library assistant, security worker and bar worker. The jobs are designed as part-time to boost the number of workers at particular periods of high demand or to fill a shortfall in labour available to deliver a service or produce a product. Demand-based part-time jobs provide employers with numerical flexibility (Fagan and O'Reilly 1998). Using full-time employees would not fill these gaps cost effectively.

13.2. A third set of part-time jobs are 'recruitment-based part-time jobs', which are created to ease recruitment to low paid jobs in tight labour markets (Grant et al 2005, 2006). For some employers a combination of low unemployment in a locality and the low pay offered for a specific job creates significant recruitment problems. The jobs are offered as part-time to attract women workers looking for part-time work.

13.3. Because all of the above types of jobs are created for particular reasons, this enables employers to set them apart from other jobs in the workplace or organisation. Critically, they become a self-contained group of jobs, not integrated into wider training, progression and career opportunities within workplaces or organisations. It is not only hours of work which set them apart from full-time jobs. They tend to lack progression opportunities and offer only a narrow range of fairly repetitive tasks.

13.4. There is considerable potential to challenge the tendency for employers to set part-time jobs apart from full-time jobs in workplace structures. With support, employers could be encouraged to explore and propose ways to reconnect part-time jobs to wider workplace opportunities. Examples of good practice, where part-time jobs are fully integrated into training and career structures, could and should be used. There is also scope to raise awareness amongst employers of the high number of talented and ambitious women seeking good quality part-time jobs but currently unable to find them, perhaps using pen portraits of the employment histories of candidates seeking part-time jobs. The notion that employees should be able to move freely from full-time to part-time to full-time (etc.) during their working lives, without loss of seniority or job complexity, needs to become an accepted principle of good employment practice. The widely held view that part-time women workers are content to 'work below their potential' needs to be refuted, and that this view is incorrect can be evidenced.

13.5 To accommodate caring roles (which change during the life course and include care for sick, disabled or frail relatives as well as care for children), work-care reconciliation and measures promoting flexibility at work will be crucial in all workplaces in the future if workers’ skills and talents are to be deployed to best effect. Successful employers worldwide recognise the realities of population ageing, and are adapting to make greater and better use of part-time workers of both sexes (Kröger and Yeandle, 2013).

20 December 2012


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Prepared 28th March 2013