Recruitment & Hiring

Why part-time work is the solution to our rapidly changing workforce

Women's Agenda /

By Stephanie Reuss and Victoria Stuart, Beam Australia

The UN recently told Australia it needs to up women’s workforce participation, suggesting that flexible work should be enshrined in the Flexible Work Act.

Brilliant! But just to be clear, if flexible work is going to have this effect, it needs to include fractional (and part-time) work. Why? Because full-time work, no matter how flexible, simply excludes huge groups of people  — and most of them happen to be women.

Despite an 11% increase in the organisations offering flexible working policies over the last four years, there has been virtually no change in gender equity. In the last four years there has been:

  • a <1% increase in the number of women in CEO roles, now 16.7%;
  • a 3% increase in the number of women in women in key management personnel roles, now 29.7%;
  • a 2.5% increase in the number of women in management roles overall, now 38.4%; and
  • a 2.4% decrease in the total remuneration pay gap, now 22.4%.

The other thing that hasn’t shifted — and this is not a coincidence — is the number of managers employed on a part-time basis. This statistic has remained stagnant at 6.3% over the last 4 years.

‘All roles flex’ is a great start … but is not enough

The fact is, ‘all roles flex’ or ‘full-time flexible’ policies, do not open up work opportunities to many more people, even though they allow more freedom and wellbeing benefits to full-time workers.

Many women (and some men) can only work part-time. Without part-time work in the mix, this attempt at a solution is just ticking a box. It feels good. But it doesn’t mobilise change.

But we already knew this.

  • Research from BCG, HBR, Bain and McKinsey shows that structurally different work models, including part-time, are a necessary component of increasing women’s workforce participation in leadership roles.
  • The ABS notes that to mobilise women into the workforce, part-time work is as important to women as access to childcare (49% v 48%). And this is at a time when we know childcare is fraught.
  • As a proportion of all employees, 25.1% are women working full-time and 21.8% are women working part-time. If you don’t advertise part-time jobs, you will never access the full pool of qualified female talent.

Compounding this effect is the lack of pathways to part-time leadership roles.

If there’s no part-time talent in leadership roles, then companies will remain biased against part-time leaders — unless there’s a structural and cultural change to negate the effects of unconscious bias.

Part-time work as a catalyst for change

In order to make change, we need to restructure the way we plan workforces and the way we advertise roles.

We know that many companies offer part-time roles once employees are in the door and have “proven” themselves. But this isn’t enough.

What happens when an amazing person who can only work three days a week sees a role advertised as “full-time flexible”? Most don’t apply as they know they will be competing against people who can work full-time. Some people who are confident in themselves and the system do. However this process is haphazard, varies by team and company, and must be faced, one person at a time.

At Beam, where we only offer part-time roles, we see every day the impact that upfront part-time roles have.

In Australia’s workforce, only 38.4% of people in management roles and above are women. But at Beam, where we offer part-time mid- to senior-level roles to a broader workforce, 86% of successful applicants are women. And the 14% of successful applicants who are men working part-time are trailblazers themselves. This reflects the ratio of women to men in Beam’s talent pool. This is what a level playing field looks like.

Looking to the future of work

This is a critical conversation for any organisation to engage with.

Yes, structural changes are difficult, but with the automation of job components, the digital age we live in, the ageing population and the preferences of knowledge workers for fractional ownership — these are changes that organisations will need to confront, and confront quickly.

We know that part-time is incredibly important for some women. But it is also important to carers, athletes, pre-retirees and millennials (who are predicted to make up three-quarters of the global workforce by 2025).

If the way we plan our workforces doesn’t change soon, we will continue to see mass lay-offs, sub-optimal productivity and increasing demand for government support.

The impact on our economy, on mental health, on financial security for women and the super gap for future generations is huge. There’s a solution right under our nose — we just need to act on it.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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