The Part-time Executive Pipeline

The Problem

As a nation we’ve been hammering on about the need for more senior part-time positions for well over two decades. Yet stubbornly corporations seem to adopt a normative posture; few acknowledge the vital importance of the part-time labour market and its direct, inextricable links to our dwindling pipeline of female talent as we progress up the organisational ladder. The first to grasp the opportunity that part-time labour offers will resolve much of their future labour challenges.

Notwithstanding, we still have the same pattern of who switches to part-time and who works full-time when heterosexual couples become parents.  Publicised reporting is often myopic; fixated mainly on gender stereotypes when what’s missing is a conversation about basic economics and British family values around how we care for our children, particularly in their pre-school years. Now’s the time to extend Hugh’s war on food waste to talented women.

The economics

Let’s consider that the average parental age gap in England and Wales is 4 years for married parents and 4.2 years for unmarried parents with the male being the older party in 68.3% of these cases (6 facts about parental age differences in England and Wales, ONS 2013). Throw into the mix the rise of assortative mating and educational homogamy (fancy academic speak for the fact that well educated people are marrying well educated people) and a gender pay gap, then it’s not difficult to see how couples, with highly qualified women, are falling back on gender stereotype behaviours when it comes to raising their children. All you have to do is follow the money trail.

What men and women REALLY want

The appetite in this country for both parents working in full-time positions whilst raising pre-school children is next to negligible. In 2012 the British Social Attitudes Survey, completed by the National Centre of Social Research, surveyed 3,000 women and men on the best and least desirable way for families with a child under school age to organise family and work life. Only 5% of men and 4% of women chose both the father and the mother working full-time as the best way for a family with a child under school age to organise family and work life. Why aren’t we talking about this? Corporate executives, both male and female, avoid this truism publicly, yet privately make the same decisions within their own families, resulting in one spouses career being stalled. But what if both spouses are highly qualified, highly able? Must the short-term reduction to part-time work whilst children are of pre-school age result in the cessation of one’s career trajectory potential? Why isn’t our Government, all too aware of our shrinking work force, highlighting  this to corporations? Men may shy away for fear of being labelled sexist and many women often think it’s too risky to rock the boat.

Women in Part Time roles working below potential

Rather than a mass exodus from the workforce, the majority of degree qualified women are moving to part-time work when they have children. They are still opting IN and even those who take career breaks are often not on a career break for long. The 2014 ONS report “Participation Rates in the UK – Women” details the difference in employment rate between female graduates (defined as women with A level qualifications and above) without children and with children. The difference / drop in employment rate between the two is only 4.5%.

A further report by ONS in 2014, Families in the Labour Market, identified that only 20.6% of women with children aged one are working in a full-time position. This fact is not stated to suggest only women are interested in going home to be with the children, rather to high-light the pre-eminent value which British families have around one spouse working part-time, or not at all, whilst children are of a pre-school age.

The case for senior Part Time positions

In 2012 The Resolution Foundation, in partnership with Netmums, produced a research report titled The high price of motherhood: women and part-time work’. They surveyed 1600 respondents who worked part-time, of whom 93% worked full-time before children. 76% of respondents with a degree said that working part-time was a free choice and 67% planned to increase their working hours once their children were older. Unfortunately, 42% of degree holders said they had taken a less skilled job because of working part time. It’s hard enough to reignite your career from part-time to full-time with all the bias surrounding part-time workers, let alone having to reignite from a position lower than when you left full-time work. Why aren’t we addressing the need for senior part-time positions?

An additional 2015 survey by the Babycentre, surveyed 6,100 women to ask if they returned to work straight after paid maternity leave. Only 3% decided not to return to work, with a further 6% taking additional unpaid leave before returning. A whopping 73% returned part-time with only 18% of the 6,100 returning full-time. Whilst the study didn’t break it down into degree qualified or non-degree qualified it is hard to read these numbers and not consider that part-time work is a part of life for most women with children, at all levels of qualification, at some stage in their career.

The truth about female bread winners

When the Institute of Public Policy Research released their 2015 Who’s Breadwinning? A Comparative Analysis report the media went crazy with “40% of mothers are primary breadwinners” headline. Many claimed we are on our way to gender parity and that this would lead to more women in leadership. The report actually points out that when we remove single female parents from the number, who are naturally the sole breadwinner, the number of partnered mothers in a breadwinning position is only 1 in 5. And they are over-represented in health, social work and education, making up 43% of the overall 20% figure. Breadwinning also remains more common in low and middle income households in Britain. The myth that women are on the rise is perhaps perpetuated by a wish to be a brand believed to be doing the right thing rather than actually doing it. Where change is happening, the pace is glacial and often requires women to make it to the top before having children. Or they need absolute certainty their spouse is willing to take the lead at home and make the same career sacrifice they would otherwise have made.

Closing the pay gap by valuing and creating Part Time roles

The recent report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies demonstrated just how wide the pay gap becomes after 12 years since a woman first gives birth. Part of this, in addition to career breaks, has to be the impact of working part-time in positions that are below ability, or working part-time and never getting promoted again. How is it a good result if the net outcome of our push for gender equality only results in many men ending up with diminished pensions, stalled career growth and opportunity for advancement because they were the one who went part-time in the pre-school years? Aren’t we just passing the problem from one to another?

Surely our goal has to be to create pathways that ensure both men and women can have long-term successful careers whilst incorporating a period of time when they work reduced hours?

Why don’t we value the part-time labour market? Is it because the vast population of people working part-time are women? Why don’t we compete for women working part-time?

No Government should acknowledge that nurturing the next generation takes secondary importance to today’s profits; or is nurturing deemed unprofitable in the long run?

We compete for what we value.

Competition for Part Time executives

The lack of competition for talent in the part-time market suggests that those working part-time aren’t valued. They are tolerated. If we’re committed to progressing women, offering them reduced hours and flexibility within our organisations in an attempt to retain them, why aren’t we competing externally for more? Why when women approach recruiters and say they are looking for part-time opportunities do the shutters come down and the calls stop? Why are all the positions advertised on corporate websites only for Full Time opportunities? The loud marketing messages from corporations suggest women are valued at all stages of their careers. But the lack of any form of competition in the part-time labour market suggests a different story.

One consulting firm, who shall remain nameless, does an amazing job of integrating maternity returners. They gradually build back up to a full workload over a period of time, starting at 60%, then 80%, etc. Why isn’t this offered externally? Why, when so many women face maternity discrimination and employers who consistently turn down requests for flexible working, aren’t other corporations desperately competing to hire this talent on a flexible or part-time basis and offering them the same conditions they offer their internal maternity returners? The complete lack of competition for women in these circumstances suggests a mere tolerance, not a valuing of their skills and all they can offer in the hours they have available at that point in time.

Job redesign is a simple solution

So why don’t we utilise women’s skill sets on the hours available to them, at the appropriate level? This would require job re-designing to create senior level positions that can be done in less than full-time hours. Not rocket science is it? We are a species that can engineer a particle accelerator; discovering hugely important exotic particles. We are a species that can mathematically calculate the age of our planet and devise theories based on events over 4.5 billion years ago. But job re-designing…. Well that’s just a bit too hard for us it would seem; or is it that, deep down, being believed to be doing the right thing is more important than actually doing it.

Without job re-designing to ensure we have a commensurate amount of positions available on the market that can be done in reduced hours we will continue to lose our female talent from the executive pipeline.  Average age gaps of couples who fall in love and British societal values around reduced working hours in the pre-school years of child raising are unlikely to disappear any time soon. Families will continue to make economic based decisions when deciding which spouse reduces hours to take the lead caring role in the family. The fact that those decisions are socially validated only exacerbates the problem. It is not the actual problem.

Our nation depends on many things, but I suggest nurturing children is of equivalent importance to all others. Do we really want to reduce the quality of our nurturing because we can’t engineer a career solution that takes it into account? Our employment world has changed drastically since yesteryear. It has denuded for many the ability to nurture our nation’s future. Our corporations have played a big part in this social change; needless to say they have a big part to play in its resolution; should the desire exist.