The Case for Normalizing Part-Time Schedules

As a country, we have spe51jNN5QoeTL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX225_SY300_CR,0,0,225,300_SH20_OU01_nt the last six weeks arguing and debating and, sadly, name-calling over how women who happen to be mothers should be working. But what if we looked at the issue from a broader perspective? Would we be able to stop the judgment game and, instead, think about how to make work and family actually work for families?  Author Robert Waring has written about just this issue in his book, Upside Down: The Paradoxes of Gender in the Twenty-first Century. With permission, here is an excerpt from his book that asks us to consider how we could make part-time schedules work for professional success, as well as family happiness:

Providing longer maternity and paternity leaves would be appreciated by many parents, but does not offer a real solution to balancing family and work for most women. The Scandinavian experience in offering long periods of such leave is a cautionary tale for women’s career advancement, and for why periods of part-time employment must be normalized and available if women are to penetrate the upper ranks of management in larger numbers. The Swedish authors of a 2009 study found a correlation between paid parental leaves exceeding one year and slower career progress. They noted that women’s representation in management is higher in English-speaking countries than in Nordic nations and suggested the length of maternity leaves as a reason.

An important lesson of the 2008 economic collapse is that the short-term focus of market forces sometimes must be redirected by longer term public policies initiated by government. Business and government employers don’t seem to be recognizing the value of keeping women in the workforce. There aren’t enough employers offering part-time tracks for people seeking such work. If job seekers don’t have meaningful choice, there is little or no pressure on employers from market forces.

There are two steps to making part-time work accessible to all. The first is removing the considerable disadvantages often faced by part-time workers. The 1997 European Union Directive on part-time work (97/81/EC) largely did that by guaranteeing part-time employees treatment equal to full-time employees, including pro rata equal compensation and benefits such as paid leave and retirement. Law in European Union nations, New Zealand and Australia also recognizes that because most part-time workers are women who work part-time only because of family caregiving obligations, disparate treatment of any part timer in the workplace is gender discrimination.

Academia should provide extended tenure tracks, so that aspiring professors do not have to choose between having a family and meeting rigid up or out deadlines many universities impose on junior faculty. Partner track professions such as law would need to provide similar extensions. Employers also could be required to provide on ramps – reinstatement to full-time status with six months’ notice from the employee. (In order to minimize disruption, employees could be limited to making a switch only once a year.)

The second step is providing actual access. One idea is the Working Families’ Flexibility Act, first introduced in Congress in 2007, co-sponsored by Senators Kennedy, Clinton and Obama and modeled after similar successful laws in the U.K. and other European nations. Still dormant after three sessions, the bill would require employers to consider all workers’ requests for reduced or flexible hours. (California and a few other states already require state agencies to offer “reduced work time” to “the extent feasible,” and guarantee part-time workers pro rata pay and benefits.) Many European nations go a step further for caregivers and provide them with the right to part-time schedules in all jobs. However, Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands set the gold standard by providing all employees the right to work part-time, with unreasonable employer refusals subject to legal review.

Great Britain’s voluntary approach requires an employer to give “serious consideration” to an employee’s request for “flexible working” to care for a child or closely related adult. Businesses can refuse to honor a request for flex time, job sharing, telecommuting or reduced hours if it would, among other things, impose additional costs or reduce production, quality or performance. A 2005 survey of all requests, not just those covered by the law, found that in the preceding two years fourteen percent of employees requested flexible working, with women asking at a much higher rate than men. In spite of their power to say no, employers accepted more than eighty percent of requests. But the same survey found that less than two-thirds of workers knew of their right to ask. What is not known is how many employees wanted to make requests but feared the career consequences of doing so.

Part time work is important for another reason affecting us all. The Atlantic’s widely read July 2012 cover story, Why Women Still Cant Have It All, observed that workplace structures make it almost impossible for mothers to have high pressure, long hours careers. Author Anne-Marie Slaughter wryly noted that, “In Washington, ‘leaving to spend time with your family’ is a euphemism for being fired” for men, but is often the truth for women. Writer Anand Giridharadas responded that America may actually be worse off for being governed and managed by “single-minded, obsessive, fierce, hurried … self-serving [and] less-than-empathetic” alpha career types who largely “ignore their families.” He rightly wondered what biases affect policymakers who “have prioritized the making of social policy over their own families.”

What do you think about the idea of normalizing the idea of part-time work of flexible work rather than the “lean in” model?

Contributor Robert Waring, the grandson of a suffragist, writes about the interplay between feminism and public policy, including how current policies affect women, and how policies that empower women can improve society for everyone. His essays on part-time work have been featured in the New York Times. His other writing has covered the First Amendment, the privacy of mental health information, and how films portray law, lawyers and the legal system. He was a founding editor of Picturing Justice: The Online Journal of Law & Popular Culture. As an attorney he has worked with California’s judiciary and legislature crafting laws, and has been court-appointed counsel for thousands of children in foster care, where he has seen parents at their best and their worst.  He calls the San Francisco area home. Follow him on Twitter @upsidedownbook or at

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  • I couldn’t agree more – and have written about this quite a bit on my site – but I think we need to embrace the trade-off that comes with it – which the author lays out in Nordic countries. It is unreasonable to expect you can work part-time or take an extended maternity leave, and still reach the upper echelon of management. The most recent study out about this issue notes that while American women face the least flexibility and government support in managing career and families, American women are also at higher levels of business than their European counterparts – and the only explanation they could find is part-time. I totally agree that our government and companies need to adopt and encourage a flexible workplace structure – but I don’t think it’s realistic for women to expect they can have those options and be in the C-Suite. Isn’t that the rub? Now let’s get President Hillary Clinton in office so we can renew her interest in the Working Families Flexibility Act – and at least create a system where we keep more mothers in the workplace.

  • I think this would make a huge difference in the employment landscape in this country. Allowing for part time schedules instead of “all or nothing” employment would reduce the awkward “employment gap” in many women’s resumes when they take time off for motherhood.

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