Why part-time work is not good for women's pay

Women can stay in a career if they need reduced hours provided they put up with whatever pay is offered

According to an IFS 2018 study working part time is the main cause of the widening gender pay gap for women after childbirth. Work experience in part-time jobs has very little beneficial impact for women, but why? What is it about part-time working that leads to these effects?

First, it is important to recognise that what happens to wages for part-time workers depends on how employers treat them and what opportunities are available. This may vary across countries. For example, in the UK part-time work has traditionally been found mainly in lower-paid occupations but in, for example, the Netherlands or Sweden there are more opportunities for part-time or reduced hours working across the occupational hierarchy.

To understand the impact of part-time work on the gender pay gap it is important to distinguish between two very different types of part-time work. The first, jobs that are designed as part time, is the most common in the UK. These are often clustered in female-dominated sectors such as cleaning, catering and care work and are often paid at or close to the minimum wage with very limited opportunity for pay progression. Senior care workers, for example, may be paid as little as £1 an hour extra than juniors but in return may be expected to turn out to cover gaps in rotas as well as providing more skilled care.

A second type of part-time work, and potentially more beneficial for women’s pay, is reduced hours working i.e. working part-time in a job where they previously worked full time. This type of part-time work is found in a wider range of sectors and is more likely to offer a longer pay career ladder. Since 2003 parents of small children have had the right to request to work flexibly – a right now extended to all adults. Exercising this right may enable women seeking part-time work (and it is still mainly women) to continue working in their career job but for reduced hours.

So why has this right to request not been sufficient to overcome the problems of poor-quality part-time jobs? Firstly, it is only a right to request (and not all employers encourage workers to request or agree to them). This is more common in the private sector than the public sector where there are more opportunities for part-time work in management and professional roles and the right to request is more frequently taken up and granted.

Even if reduced hours can be negotiated this is not the end of the problem. A review of research on the pay gap related to motherhood (Grimshaw and Rubery 2015) revealed that many employers made the assumption that mothers working part time were not interested in demanding work, so put them on a ‘mommy track’ where training and development opportunities are limited.

Women who are treated this way do not have the option to take that right to request flexible working to another employer. Instead they would have to work full time for six months before again having a statutory right to request flexible working. Thus women now face a new kind of trap: they can work in their career job if they need reduced hours provided they put up with whatever work and pay opportunities are offered by this single employer.

Many of the problems experienced by part-timers reflect the working time arrangements for all staff. The more full-time workers in high-level jobs are expected to work whenever and wherever, the more difficult it is to introduce reduced hours working into those occupations. Can 50% of a 70-hour job really be considered part time? However, if a part-timer were to receive half the pay for much less than half the actual hours the full-time employees normally worked there would be feelings of resentment.

To make progress for women we need to have a new debate on what are appropriate working times for all. The outcome of a push to limit long hours might also have the benefit of enabling more fathers to share childcare as well as providing more opportunities for women to combine work and care.

Jill Rubery is professor of comparative employment systems at Alliance Manchester Business School