How we talk about part-time work matters

by Katy Marsh-Davies @@KatyAcademic

I received the following email response from a colleague in professional services today: ‘Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner, I only work part-time’. I’ve had this response from colleagues before, but this time it rankled. I already knew she worked part-time because I received her automatic email reply. I also knew because a senior colleague had told me, in hushed tones, that members of her team mainly work part-time, ‘so you might not always get the support you need in a timely manner’.

It came on a day when I finally received confirmation that a piece I had co-written with a colleague from the Education faculty would be published. It’s an article about making schools more women-friendly post-COVID and in the penultimate edit some re-wording was undertaken by an over-editor, changing some of our original phrasing about flexible working.

One change that stood out referred to women ‘going down’ to part-time hours. My co-author pointed out to the editorial team that ‘this language is indicative of part-time work being seen as less important than full-time working.'

We may be being pedantic here but the use of language around part-time working is something that helps shape a negative narrative and something we are keen to challenge. We would prefer something like reducing their paid working hours or not working full-time if this could be re-worked.

Language-use around part-time working, and the women who do so (there are vastly more women), was already on my mind, as I was finalising a conference paper about my research on teachers working flexibly during COVID. For this paper I mainly focused on one participant, a female teacher and mother to a young child. She had moved in with her elderly parents during one of the lockdowns, to provide care for them and this had meant not seeing her husband and child for six weeks. When she returned to teaching physically within her school, she applied for a part-time working pattern but her manager told her that this would be ‘highly problematic’ and she felt she’d been labelled ‘a difficult woman’ for even making the request. I’d been discussing this issue with a colleague, who’d previously worked part-time herself. She shared with me that she had been told by her manager at that time that ‘part-time workers are so inflexible’, this frustrated her greatly because the opposite was blatantly true: she had, on many occasions, attended meetings on non-working days for the sake of the business, which full-time working colleagues could not claim (imagine a full-time colleague happily giving up their weekend) and which had caused her additional childcare costs.

My writing partner from Education used to be a teacher but had quit because, when she began part-time working, she was stripped of her leadership responsibilities and found this loss of status untenable. My sister also left teaching recently and now runs her own business. I provided childcare for her, a number of years ago, because she was unable to persuade her employer to let her work part-time and keep her promotion to head of department, and. without the salary uplift this role entailed, she couldn’t have saved for the deposit to buy her first house (I referred to these experiences in a previous blog for WomenEd). My colleague from Education has subsequently done research recounting the experiences of part-time working women teachers. Her participants were discouraged from applying for promotion because they perceived they would not be successful, due to a lack of precedence and also a perception that leadership roles necessitated full-time working, which they were reluctant to do.

Requests for part-time working usually come at times in women’s lives when they are facing challenges, such as pregnancy, maternity, menopause, the disablement or illness of a child, spouse or parent. As such these requests are rarely a whimsical desire for more ‘me time’ but profoundly impact on women’s abilities to manage the competing roles and personal challenges they have.

To return to my professional services colleague at the beginning of this article, here’s how I should have countered her reply:

Do NOT apologise. You do not ONLY work part-time. Your work is important work. It doesn’t always provide the work-life balance desired. Career progression may be halted or even reversed. And unfortunately you’re going to have to work harder than others to prove your value and commitment to the organisation.

Maybe there are other women, doing or considering part-time work, who also need to hear this.

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