People & Human Resources

The term ‘part-time work’ is a relic that’s hurting working parents

Rob Sturrock /

‘Working part-time’ is a total misnomer for working parents. It sounds like an innocent descriptor to categorise people not working full-time — giving a neat definition to statisticians and HR departments across the country — but over the years it has accumulated such baggage and become so gendered, that it hurts a lot more working parents’ careers than it helps.

Whether you have kids or not, how many times have you heard statements like, “she only works part-time” or “that project would have been finished earlier but he is working part-time“? Or, “‘we’ve had to allow her to go part-time”?

Almost one-third of the Australian workforce is employed part-time. Within that is a significant portion of working parents trying to do the big juggle between work and family. When a parent starts working part-time, it brings with it instant judgement and new perceptions in the workplace.

Some organisations are brilliant at it; supportive employers empower employees to work part-time because they understand the many benefits this brings to a team.

But many employers still take it as a signal that the employee is not as interested in their career, as their family. That they are looking to ease up on the work front and put in less effort in order to reallocate that to kids. That they’ll be more distracted by personal crises. That they will become less reliable and less predictable. Which is mostly nonsense.

‘Part-time’ is not gender neutral because in the realm of working parents, it is almost always referring to mum, not dad. It’s like talking about the ‘primary caregiver’ – another arbitrary and unhelpful phrase.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) did a report card on the workplaces for over 4 million Aussies for 2016-17. According to WGEA there are three times as many women working part-time as men. And according to the same report card, on the flip side there are significantly more men in full-time work than women.

Assumptions about a woman’s career ambitions can change early and quickly — upon getting married, telling their employer they’re pregnant or asking to work flexibly.

For one of my very close friends, a super smart and successful lawyer, her boss’s perceptions of her changed the minute he found out she was simply engaged. He started talking behind her back about how she would lose her drive and ambition now and simply be focused on kids and family. Her ambition hadn’t changed a bit, but that didn’t stop her boss projecting tired stereotypical intentions on to her.

I’m a dad of less than two years, and a part-time worker. I work four days a week and spend Mondays taking care of my daughter and since doing that I have been stunned by the number of mums I’ve met who have had their careers plateau or stall because they’ve asked to work part-time.

Teachers, lawyers, artists, entrepreneurs — an incredible bunch of people. Their passion, commitment and energy for their work and their careers has not changed: but what their employers think of them has.

These are brilliant women who want to be working and the fact it needs saying that these women ought to be supported — rather than overlooked, dismissed or side-lined — in their return to work is thoroughly depressing.

The fact a person might not sit at their desk for five (or six) days a week, putting in 12 hours a day, does not preclude them from contributing or leading.

Talking about part-time work also hurts men who want to reduce their hours at the office in order to be a bigger part in their kids’ lives. As Annabel Crabb argues in The Wife Drought, we need to do all we can to encourage women to step back into the workforce and all we can to help men step out.

But men who ask to go part-time risk being told by HR managers or bosses that the part-time ‘path’ is really designed for working mums. They risk having their career stalled because of the same misconceptions that punish women who seek flexible arrangements.

This is a double-whammy that whacks both working mums, dads and kids all at once. Nobody wins in this context. A husband of a friend was recently laughed at simply for asking for two weeks off for the birth of his first child! That’s how far we still have to come in Australia in supporting dads to be fully involved parents outside the workplace.

It’s false to suggest people who work part-time are less committed to their jobs, in the same way it’s nonsense to say everyone who works full-time is totally committed to their jobs.

Parents working part-time, by necessity, have a huge amount on their plates and managing both requires a substantial commitment. In many instances they do more than their fair share at the office, in a bid to compensate for their reduced hours, and don’t get paid a full rate.

Plenty of ‘part-time’ working parents I know do a full-time load in a part-time role and get paid three-quarters of the salary for it (which shows masterful time management and as superb efficiency, which are surely qualities employers desire?).

So many concepts in our modern workforce no longer work for us very well but we continue using them anyway.

The notion of the eight hours a day, five-day work week was devised by Henry Ford for building the Model-T in the early 1900s. Ford wanted to know how far he could push his factory workers until they were so tired they started making mistakes. Our entire work culture is based on putting together a turn of the century car!

Making modern workplaces work for the times requires innovation. There are great examples of people job sharing, people working remotely, people choosing flexible hours to fit in with family life: these are all manner of initiatives that can (and should) be promoted under the banner of flexibility. The work all gets done, it’s just not on Henry Ford’s timetable anymore.

Talking about part-time versus full-time workers holds back our workforce from transforming into something more resilient and powerful, and doesn’t fairly represent the dynamism of working parents.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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