Women in Workplace - Business, Innovation and Skills Committee Contents

4  Flexible working

It really is a waste of talented people to be sitting at home or doing unrewarding work for which no qualifications are required just because companies are short-sighted enough not to offer professional part-time jobs. [Helen Hernandez][125]

Current position

79.  The term 'flexible working' covers a wide variety of working practices. It includes: compressed hours, staggered hours and term-time hours, where full-time work is arranged and organised around other commitments; job sharing, where two or more people work the equivalent of a full-time job; and part time work, where people work fewer hours per week. For the sake of simplicity, the term 'flexible working' will be used in this chapter to cover all such variations of working practices.

80.  The ability to work flexibly was raised in oral evidence, by the contributors to Mumsnet and Woman's Hour, and in our written evidence. During and after the Woman's Hour phone-in, in November 2012, the majority of tweets referred to flexible working:

Work for multinational, but all flexibility dependent on line manager decision locally [...];

I am currently applying for flexible work after maternity leave and the company has said the minimum is 30 hours [...];

we must fix female talent pipeline at all levels and ensure women fulfil their potential;

I was recently told I was the best candidate for a job but couldn't have it because I wanted to work a 4 day week;

Fascinating phone-in this morning. Can't believe part-time working is still regarded with suspicion by so many employers.[126]

81.  Heather Rabbatts, Non-Executive Director of the Football Association, told us:

In terms of my own experience, if you look at women's careers, there is the time leading up to having children, there is having children, and there is trying to return to work. Women are impacted by these in a variety of different ways. There are mechanisms [...] for trying to encourage women back into the work force, but they are pretty sparse, and not that effective. We leak huge amounts of talent out of the system.[127]

This view was echoed by the personal experience of Kay Vincent:

Having graduated from an MSc in computing in 2012 I would have dearly loved to work in the IT sector (and apparently the IT industry is crying out for graduates with programming skills). Unfortunately, I could not find anyone who would employ me, because I can only work part time. To me this seems like a huge and obvious waste. Not just for me personally, but perhaps for tens of thousands of women. Why can't employers find ways to use the skills of job-share and part-time workers?[128]

Opportunities for flexible working are sparse, and where they are offered, they are often in poorly paid jobs, with short-term contracts. Written evidence from WEN Wales cited research that showed that 50% of available part-time work in Wales is low paid work.[129] Women Like Us, a social enterprise recruitment firm that helps women find part-time work, stated:

The part-time recruitment market is skewed strongly in favour of vacancies with salaries below £20,000 full-time equivalent earnings. [...] This is in sharp contrast to the full-time market, where the majority of vacancies pay over £20k".[130]

82.  Dr Linda Grant, from Sheffield Hallam University, and Professor Sue Yeandle, from the University of Leeds, submitted evidence based on the Gender and Employment in Local Labour Markets research programme, which undertook research across 12 local labour markets in England. They summarised the constituent elements of available flexible work:

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.[131]

83.  Flexible work is often concentrated in one area of the organisation, and is not appreciated within the context of the organisation as a whole, a conclusion based on research that Dr Grant and Professor Yeandle undertook:

Critically, [part-time jobs] become a self-contained group of jobs, not integrated into the 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.[132]

Furthermore, there is often an inconsistency between employers having a policy of encouraging flexible working in principle, and their ability to implement it in practice, as highlighted by Women Like Us:

Where businesses were resistant to part-time working, some HR respondents reported a 'disconnect' between what their department advocated (e.g. flexible working practices) and their ability to implement this because of a workplace culture operating on a model of full-time employment.[133]

84.  It should also be noted that the long-hours culture prevalent in certain sectors has an impact not only on those full-time workers who work beyond their contracted hours, but also on those wishing to work a percentage of the contracted full-time hours. The Institute of Physics highlighted this problem:

There is no longer an expectation that full-time work is solely 35-40 hours per week, and indeed, in many science occupations the expectation is to work in excess of this, with a 60-hour week not being untypical. Employers, therefore, may not see part-time work as a valuable commodity, given that such employees would be working way less than the expectation. This needs to be addressed through targeted guidance to all employees around productivity and work-life balance, as well as highlighting the benefits of highly-skilled, flexible part-time workers.[134]

85.  On the other hand, in contrast to the evidence we received about the poor quality of much flexible working practices, we also received evidence that highlighted the positive aspects of good quality flexible working. For example, Maggy Pigott extolled both the personal benefits of flexible working in a Senior Civil Service post, a job that she shared with her partner, and the benefits that it brought to their employer:

Productivity increased. We worked three days each but believe we produced more than one person working six days and our job responsibilities tended to grow. We could not have worked for five days at the pace sustained over three. And our days off provided time to re-charge batteries, reflect, and restore balance. You do have to prioritise and time-manage rigorously, deadlines are often shorter, and 'down-time' is minimal. In two of our Senior Civil Service posts when we moved on we were replaced by two full-timers.[135]

86.  As well as offering greater flexibility to employees, Women Like Us highlighted other benefits:

Recruiting skilled part-time staff can help growing businesses to: acquire experienced talent at an affordable cost; recruit for hard-to-fill/niche roles; and realise cost efficiencies by more precisely matching tasks to appropriate skills/salary levels. All the above is set against a background of incomplete knowledge. For example, the market tends to be viewed as a homogenous whole, regardless of salary and skill levels, glossing over the distinction between the employment and recruitment markets; while the part-time employment market is well documented, the part-time recruitment market is not as well understood. The Office for National Statistics does not collect data on part-time vacancies outside of Jobcentre Plus.[136]

Data transparency and a voluntary code of practice

87.  The Office of National Statistics (ONS) collects estimates for total vacancies, from the Vacancy Survey, but those estimates are not broken down in terms of full-time and part-time jobs.[137] Furthermore, there is no data on the number of current flexible workers, although the ONS publishes estimates for the number of people in part-time employment as part of the monthly labour market statistics release.[138] This difficulty in knowing who is and is not working flexibly was further explained by Sarah Jackson, Chief Executive of Working Families:

The majority of our employers are large, private sector organisations. They talk about the difficulty they have in evidencing their own flexible cultures, because they say, 'We record the people who make a contractual change to the terms of their employment. We can tell you who is working contractually part-time and flexibly. We know anecdotally—because we are good employers and we are trying to create a flexible culture—that we have a lot of people who are working flexibly informally.' However, it is very hard for them to track them.[139]

88.  Jo Swinson, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, extolled the value of data:

I am a great believer in the notion that what gets measured gets done. Transparency and monitoring can play a really important role, because very often some of the factors holding women back are not always—although it does exist—actual sexism; often, it is that the issue has not been properly thought about. In fact, sometimes the problem is not obviously apparent until you look at plain numbers in black and white.[140]

However, in relation to data transparency on flexible working, the Government itself has a poor track record. There is no consistent form of recording part-time working in Government Departments, and so it is difficult to get comprehensive information. However, what little available information there is reveals a wide divergence in flexible and part-time working opportunities between Departments. For example, 3.1% of staff in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 7.1% of Treasury staff, 11% of staff in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and 39% of staff in the Department for Work and Pension work part time or in a job share.[141]

89.  Without reliable, consistent data on the extent of flexible working—including part-time, job-share, and compressed hours—the Government, public and private sector employers, and employees cannot have clear understanding of who is working in such a way, in what sector, and how well they are performing. The data needs to be gathered and analysed by gender, race and disability, and by age and sector. The Government Equalities Office should oversee the collation of this data by the Office of National Statistics.

The Government should collect and publish consistent data on the working practices of staff within its own Departments. This data should be reviewed on an annual basis, and those Departments with poor records of offering flexible working should be set achievable targets for improvement.


90.  The opportunities for flexible working in senior posts remain rare, as research carried out by Dr Hazel Conley and Dr Tessa Wright, from Queen Mary, University of London, and Dr Susan Durbin and Professor Moore, from the University of the West of England, showed:

Part-time working at management levels remains rare in the UK: 27% of the UK workforce works part-time, of which 74% are women and just 6.5 % of part-time workers are employed in the occupational category of managers and senior officials (Labour Force Survey 2012). Given the large numbers of women who work part-time, compared with men, and their relative rarity at management levels, this has important implications for the earnings potential of these women. [...] There remains an untapped resource of experienced, qualified women who are under-employed in the UK job market, because employers are not prepared to consider part-time working as a serious option for managers.[142]

Sir David Normington, First Civil Service Commissioner and Commissioner for Public Appointments, added:

You need to create flexible working opportunities to keep those women in touch and give them the opportunities to balance their childcare responsibilities, which they often have, maybe with working part-time on a flexible basis. It is easier to do that at first-tier senior management than at the most senior management level, though it is not impossible at that level. That is where all organisations need to focus their attention. If you lose touch with your excellent women managers at that point, you will probably not get them back and they will go off and do something else. This is very bad for the organisation and also for them.

Maggy Pigott's personal evidence highlighted the benefits that employers gain from flexible working:

Job-sharing has the obvious and significant advantage over part-time working that the whole week is covered; therefore any full-time role can, in theory, be shared. Working three days a week (or the time-equivalent) is more difficult in senior positions—often the senior part-timer works four days and, in reality, is doing five days work in four. We always had mainstream posts, previously held by a full-timer, and were fortunate to be able to undertake high profile and fulfilling work.[143]

The flexibility for both employee and employer was also supported by Linda Wells, who described, in a personal capacity, her experience of job-sharing as a teacher:

Having two people completely up to speed on one job gives the workforce flexibility to allow for individuals attending courses, holidaying etc. without loss to clients. In the private sector (where the criticism of job sharing is break in continuity) I would say that the lesser likelihood of neither person being available for clients etc., as one covers for the other, means better continuity over all.[144]

91.  There are examples of where organisations have implemented part-time or job share arrangements at a senior level, in an attempt to improve female representation at all levels within the organisation. For example, since 2006, Clydesdale Bank has allowed various flexible working practices, including giving all staff the right to request flexible working practices. Its maternity leave return rate "was low between 60-70%" but has been improved and now is maintained at over 80%.[145] The Discrimination Law Association also highlighted the availability of flexible working at American Express[146], while Timewise Jobs is the UK's first jobsite dedicated to professional part-time roles. It features over 4,000 employers and advertises more than 3,000 quality part-time vacancies.[147]

92.  Jemima Coleman, from the Employment Lawyers Association, summed up the need to highlight best practice:

There is also quite a lot that can be done generally in terms of celebrating best practice and drawing attention, as some organisations have done recently, to power part-timers, people who are holding very senior roles on a part-time basis, celebrating those and rolling out best practice—perhaps even having some kind of guidance to best practice so that it is no longer seen as a career-limiting move to take a part-time role.[148]

Again, Maggy Pigott described her positive experience of job-sharing in the Senior Civil Service:

My job-sharing partner and I were able to continue working after we had children and we gained promotion together to the SCS. We worked with the Senior Judiciary, Ministers, Permanent Secretaries, the legal profession, the third sector and others and we had up to 65 staff. We never encountered any serious difficulties over our 23 years and were often told the Department gained by having job-sharers. We were fortunate in the culture that prevailed and we felt able to apply for any post. Job-sharing was welcomed in our Department and at one time there were three SCS pairs. Culture and support from the top were crucial to our longevity and success.[149]

93.  Good-quality flexible work is attractive to both men and women; it affects all employees with caring responsibilities. Evidence from Dr Linda Grant and Professor Sue Yeandle, described the benefits for employees to have fluidity between part-time and full-time work, as and when their personal circumstances change, and for employers, of whom they wrote,"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".[150] Gingerbread reinforced this point:

While it is often offered as a retention tool for existing staff, flexible working is most successful when employers embed it at the heart of an organisation—designed for everyone, central to the way that they operate, and with managers leading the cultural shift needed to make it work. Where this is in place, employers point to impressive business benefits—a positive impact to the bottom line, as well as delivering a virtuous circle of higher employee morale, leading to increased staff engagement, retention and productivity.[151]

94.  We also heard from Debbie Crosbie, Director of Operations and IT at Clydesdale Bank, who spoke of the bank's commitment to flexible working, for all staff:

We have a very high percentage of flexible-working practices. That is not just for women. That is one thing that is important—to change this culture. It this is just seen as a women's issue, it sends out the wrong messages. We have a number of policies—whether the responsibilities are caring for older parents or any other responsibility—under which people can apply for part-time working, key working and flexible working. We embed and encourage that as part of how we do business now. It is very important that people like me, who hold very senior positions, are supportive of that.[152]

95.  However, the right to request flexible working does not go far enough for some. Fair Play South West wrote that "the 'right to request' flexible work has been only partially successful; there needs now to be a 'right to work' flexibly so that employers cannot refuse".[153]

96.  We recommend the establishment of a voluntary Code of Practice by the Government, through the Government Equalities Office, to highlight best practice in relation to the provision of quality part-time and flexible working. The Government should draw attention to those organisations that encourage flexible working—for both men and women, at all levels of the workforce, including at a senior level—in order to dispel the myth that flexible working is problematic and cannot work.

97.  Flexible employment can work, when it is fully integrated into the workplace structure, with equal access for training and development opportunities alongside full-time workers. The voluntary Code of Practice should also highlight the 'return-to-work' experiences and opportunities for those many women who are qualified and experienced in their chosen work, and who wish to return to work after looking after young children.

98.  Currently, employees do not have the right to ask for flexible or part-time working within six months of starting a job. Staff should be entitled to ask for flexible working from the outset, unless there are justifiable reasons to the contrary. This should be led from the top management level, with the default position being the right to ask for flexible working, unless justified.

Small and medium businesses (SMEs)

99.  The success of the SME sector, in particular micro-businesses, is crucial to ensure the economic recovery of the country. There are constraints under which some SMEs operate, which make flexible or part-time working harder to accommodate. However, there are also opportunities for SMEs to employ flexible workers. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) told us that many SMEs already consider flexible workers to be integral to the success of their businesses. Mike Cherry, Policy Chairman of the FSB, told us that:

I think [SMEs] are far better suited and better able to recognise the requirement of their employees. From the FSB's point of view, our surveys repeatedly show that small and micro businesses are better people to employ females, disadvantaged groups and the long-term unemployed. We take the risk and we give them the opportunities. So long as we feel that we can train them, their gender or any other orientation does not matter. They are people who want to do the job, and if it requires us to be more flexible in our approach because of child care or any other issues, we tend to do that almost automatically, because that is the way small businesses tend to behave towards each other.[154]

100.  Tim Ward, Chief Executive Officer of Quoted Companies Alliance, told us that flexible working, especially as a senior level, can work in small organisations, depending on the context:

It depends on the culture and the values the organisation holds. An interesting study was carried out earlier in the year by the CIPD, which was a survey of 1,000 employers and 2,000 employees. The general feeling was that employees working for micro and small businesses are much more likely to be working flexibly than those working in medium or large businesses. Also, the smaller the organisation you work for, the less likely employees are to have obstacles to working flexibly. There is something there about the size of the organisation—and perhaps the fact that there are crossovers of jobs and roles—that means people can share or cover each other's roles much more easily than if you are in a much more ordered, risk-based environment where there are processes and procedures that introduce operational obstacles to working flexibly.[155]

101.  The issue of whether flexible working can be incorporated into the working arrangements of SMEs depends on each business, sector by sector. While some small businesses can work with a highly flexible workforce, others would find it difficult. It can also depend on the type of job within an organisation. Debbie Crosbie, from Clydesdale Bank, told us of the different arrangements within the bank, which has the potential to be a framework for any organisation, large or small:

We have a lot of different arrangements. Nearly all the requests for flexibility are granted, but there are occasions where individuals ask for arrangements or to go into part-time roles where we have to come back and say, 'Look, we do not think that is right for you and we do not think it is the best thing for the organisation'. We do a lot to find suitable alternatives, but I think that just allowing people to assume that everything must be flexible is a naive attitude to business. It is very important that the culture in an organisation is supportive, but it must be realistic about helping people set achievable goals for themselves and for the organisation at the same time.[156]

102.  The Equalities and Human Rights Commission needs to take a more active role in supporting and advising SMEs, in relation to the issue of flexible working. Many SMEs are exemplars of flexible working, which benefits both the business and the staff, but others lack the knowledge to utilise flexible working successfully. The Government should invest resources in advising small and medium businesses, of the benefits of recruiting and retaining flexible workers, and it should highlight the work that organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses do to promote the positive benefits of flexible working.

125   Ev w39 Back

126   @womanshour, 14 November 2012, 1.50pm Back

127   Q235 Back

128   Ev w115 Back

129   Ev w109 Back

130   Ev w109 Back

131   Ev w37 Back

132   Ev w38 Back

133   Ev w111 Back

134   Ev w45 Back

135   Ev w80  Back

136   Ev w109 Back

137   Email from the Labour Market, Office of National Statistics, 29 April 2013 Back

138   Email from the Labour Market, Office of National Statistics, 29 April 2013. The estimates are available at www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lms/labour-market-statistics/april-2013/index-of-data-tables.html#tab-Employment-tables Back

139   Q 92 Back

140   Q 449 Back

141   Information received as a result of parliamentary questions raised by Ann McKechin MP, in the spring of 2013. Back

142   Ev w20 Back

143   Ev w80 Back

144   Ev w94 Back

145   Ev 159 Back

146   Ev 163 Back

147   Ev w108 Back

148   Q 114 Back

149   Ev w80 Back

150   Ev w38 Back

151   Ev w35 Back

152   Q 167 Back

153   Ev w34 Back

154   Q 353


155   Q 168 Back

156   Q 166 Back

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Prepared 20 June 2013