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Home Opinion Women in the workforce: prizing open the part-time work trap
Workforce • Women • Childcare

Women in the workforce: prizing open the part-time work trap

Sylvia Walby - 27 November 2014

What are the solutions to the problem of women becoming trapped in low-paid, low-skill work after childbirth?

Reforming part-time work lies at the heart of a regendered social democratic strategy to increase economic growth and decrease gender inequality. This can be achieved using the predistribution interventions of better regulation, mobilising the social investment state and deepening democracy.

The problem with part-time work is that it has become a ghetto of low-paid, low-skill, low-productivity employment. It is a big problem, since it concerns about a quarter of the workforce. This largely, though not entirely, concerns women workers, since they are the majority of those who work part-time: around half of women workers work part-time.

Many women are trapped in part-time work. It starts with a positive choice to combine employment and childcare when children are very young. It can be a deliberate strategy to enable time with children and time in paid work. But after a few years in the part-time sector, it is hard to leave, even as children grow up, becoming a trap. 

Traditionally, women would leave employment to have children, seeking to return to employment a few years later. This interruption breaks the link with their employer.  So, for many women the re-entry to the labour market would be to a different employer. Typically, if they wanted part-time hours, this was only available on the open labour market in the part-time ‘sector’, and not available in the high-skill sector with decent pay and conditions.

For a lucky minority, a new pattern was beginning to emerge before the economic crisis, following the development of maternity, paternity and parental leaves and more available childcare, in which women returned to the same employer and work at the same level as before children. If women were lucky, they would work full-time until childbirth; take a period of maternity leave often of around a year – part properly paid, part poverty-level paid and part unpaid – and then return to the same employer and work reduced hours in their old job. 

Why does the ‘same employer’ matter? Why is ‘any employer’ not as good as the ‘same employer’? This is because of the coproduction of human capital by a worker and an employer. The worker learns things in her work that only a worker doing exactly that work can know. These skills are part of her human capital. Typically the employer has contributed something to this, with time spent in formal training, or indeed informal training from fellow workers. If the worker leaves, then this human capital is lost; it disappears. Each has to start all over again, both employer and woman. If the woman starts again with a new employer she is at a serious disadvantage. 

The UK has a large part-time sector, historically established at a time when it was usual for women to take longer breaks for childbirth and childcare than they typically do today. It is a reservoir of low-skill, low-wage work with poor conditions of work. It is deeply sedimented into the structure of British industry. During the recession it has grown. It is a key part of the problem of the low productivity in the UK economy.

Not all advanced economies have part-time work that is so poor. Some countries have developed part-time employment of mothers of the form of ‘reduced hours’ in decent jobs. Poor part-time work is not inevitable in European economies.

Moving the UK into a high-growth, high-skill, high-wage economy requires addressing this large sector of poor part-time employment. This means a double move to improve the quality of employment in the part-time sector and to shrink the size of this sector.

How can this be done?  

First, the regulation of employment must be improved so that more women can stay attached to the same employer before and after childbirth. This would reduce one of the major routes into low-skill, low-productivity work and help to shrink the sector. This could involve making fewer restrictions, such as length of prior employment, on the legal right to return to the same employment by mothers. It could mean introducing greater flexibility over the length of time away from work before the right to return expires. It could involve toughening up the implementation of the law against discriminating against pregnant women, for example, by offering free legal assistance to women who have complaints and by revoking the fees that have recently been imposed on applicants to employment tribunals. It could involve a new legal entitlement for women who move onto part-time work after child-birth to return to full-time work later on, when they are ready for this.

Second, the social investment state should be developed. This is partly the traditional policy of increasing publicly provided childcare. It could mean additionally, supporting women who are intending to return to employment after a break (but not the same employer) with access to free training, so they can re-enter the labour market with refreshed up-to-date skills. Such women are rarely in a position to pay for such training themselves. While the unemployed have often been given access to such training, it has not yet been extended to returning mothers. It should be.

Third, democracy must be deepened so as to facilitate the stronger expression of the voices of those in these predicaments. In general this means improving the gender-balance of decision making, so that women’s voices are heard and represented in the places where decisions are made. It means the application of the practice of ‘gender budgeting’ so that the gendered costs and benefits of financial decisions can be made more visible, and more likely to lead to positive decisions. It could mean encouraging unionisation in the part-time sector, so as to help low-wage workers to help themselves in negotiations with employers.  And of course, it means staying in the EU, since the equality legislation that provides so many of the legal entitlements of workers is underpinned by its directives.  

What would be the outcome? The full employment of women would be a boost to economic growth and to gender equality at the same time.

Sylvia Walby is distinguished professor of Sociology at the University of Lancaster and Unesco chair in gender research

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Social Policy and Changing Welfare States.

Tags: equality , recession , labour market , pay gap , childcare , maternity pay

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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