Part-time work taken by women to balance home and work – but not by men – entrenches gender inequality in Europe

fathers part-time work

Photo: Paul. Creative Commons.

By Dr Clare Lyonette, University of Warwick.

Part-time working has serious impacts on gender equality in Europe, because it is used so much more by mothers than fathers.

Part-time working is commonly used, primarily by women, across Europe and other developed countries to manage care and domestic responsibilities, while contributing to the household income. The UK has one of the highest proportions of women working part-time in Europe and reduced-hours work for women is recognised as the way to combine work and family responsibilities. The proportion of women working part-time – or not at all – increases according to the number of children they have.

There have also been increased numbers of men working part-time in their main job, although this is often due to an inability to gain full-time work, especially during the current recession, rather than dictated by the need to balance their work and family commitments (indeed, recent data has shown that men are much less likely than women to work part-time after having children, with fathers working even longer hours than non-fathers). This may be partly due to the loss of the female partner’s income and even though many men would prefer to be more involved at home, particularly in childcare, the long hours culture prevalent in the UK makes it difficult to achieve this.

Women like part-time work and reducing working hours, at least for a short time after having children, would seem like an ideal solution to the work-care interface. However, working part-time has serious consequences for women’s careers: research over many decades has shown that part-time work is of lower quality than comparable full-time work. Reduced-hours work offers fewer training and development opportunities and lower status and pay than comparable full-time jobs. Women in more senior roles often ‘downgrade’ after having children, working below their potential and representing a serious loss of skills and experience to the UK economy.

Equally important is the fact that working part-time reinforces gender inequalities in the home, with women taking on the vast majority of housework and childcare while working part-time. In addition, part-time working women often remain trapped in lower-paid jobs over the longer-term, with implications for lifetime earnings and pensions, and, as a result, remain financially dependent on male partners. The ‘quality’ of part-time work has been of interest to researchers and governments alike but sixteen years after the European Directive on Part-Time Work came into effect, little appears to have changed.

Lyonette C, Part-time work, work-life balance and gender equality, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 37.3, November 2015