Stop the part-time worker prejudice

SARAH MACDONALD
Last updated 12:06 26/02/2013
Stop the part-time worker prejudice
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PART-TIME DOESN'T MEAN HALF-HEARTED: Part-time work is concentrated in industries that are female dominated – trade, accommodation, health, culture, recreation and education.

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I both adore and dread school information night in equal measure.

It's always great to meet my children's new teachers but I often come home unsettled. Usually it's because I feel I'm the only one who doesn't enforce homework. But what got up my goat this year was more about the way that adults work, both in and out of the home.

My daughter has two teachers. Both went part-time after having kids; one works Monday and Tuesday, the other, the rest of the week. As we squeezed our big butts into little chairs the two teachers calmly explained how they shared the job, even detailing how they divided the curriculum and communicated with one another. The two women had clearly thought long and hard about the job share. They also had a lot in common and were so in-sync they not only finished each other's sentences but accidentally wore identical shirts. Both were passionate, dedicated and extremely organised. 

Most parents relaxed as they bathed in the glow of light, warmth and professionalism. Yet there was a distinct chill emanating from the back stalls.

That's where the fathers were sitting.

Quite a few of the dads proceeded to give the teachers the third degree about the job share. There were questions about how they could effectively teach, handover responsibilities and communicate with each other. It wasn't so much the questions that were uncomfortable as the body language, tone and attitude - it seemed to say 'part-time job share doesn't work. I don't want it.'

I know it can take kids some time to get used to having two teachers. But they will. I've seen many advantages to the arrangement; a teacher coping with 20-plus kids a day could be well understood for being grumpy, over it and slack come Friday, while job sharers return rejuvenated. They also get kids ready for the constant change of teacher that comes in High School and they offer different perspectives, methods and capabilities.

It felt to me that many of the men in the room were not just questioning the teachers' ability to manage a job share but also their capacity, commitment and life style. Part-time, full-time or not working we were united in pain at the men's hostility to the job share.

Yesterday an employment tribunal in the UK heard that a BBC Chief was so antagonistic to working mothers he made a job share request impossibly onerous and wanted the woman marked 'at risk of redundancy'. If true, it's a shocking attitude that's alas not that shocking to hear.

Because while this shouldn't be a 'woman's issue', it is. There's a massive gender divide as 70% of part-time workers are women.

I'm not blaming men for this. Who works and how much is not always a free choice. A study from the University of South Australia found nearly half of fathers would prefer fewer hours at work and many would love to go part-time.

The problem is, men are more likely to earn more than their female partner. Hence in heterosexual relationships it usually makes more economic sense for the bloke to stick to a full-time job. It's another consequence of pay inequity and it has many ramifications. Part-time jobs are less secure, less well paid, accrue less superannuation and offer less chance of promotion and pay rises. They can enforce female disadvantage and can be an under-use of women's talent, brains and human capital. Yet, I deeply understand why part-time work appeals and believe my human capital can contribute to two jobs - both carer and career.

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The fact is, those who prickle at part-timers better drop their prejudices. They are here to stay. 

One problem is our working culture; it's macho, or at least masochistic. I know many women who work 4 days a week and struggle to be accepted, respected and included in the workplace - especially if they miss out on Friday night drinks. Many are so keen to keep up they end up doing a full time workload on a part-time wage.

Not all jobs are suited to job share and part-time positions. Yet it's interesting what institutions and organisations can do when they have to. Part-time work is concentrated in industries that are female dominated - trade, accommodation, health, culture, recreation and education. These industries simply have to accept part-time workers to function.

What's more, part-time work is, in fact, good for the bottom line. International workplace provider Regus found companies with part-time jobs achieved real increases in productivity and greater revenue generation. Managers across the globe also reported that staff were more energised and motivated thanks to flexible working. Job sharing is now being successfully used as an important talent retention tool.

Then there are the unbilled benefits: the unacknowledged work that women do with their other hours.  Most are not watching daytime soaps on their day off; they're doing the majority of unpaid work in the community, at schools, on committees and in charities, not to mention the housework, aged care and childcare. If society had to pay for this it would cost a bomb.

At the end of the information night the teachers asked for volunteers to be class parent. That's when all the involved dads' went silent and put their hands down. I get it. They work hard. There's no time. So, I and another mum stepped up. We both work. This will be another unpaid job we will do to help the school, our community and the kids. But I'm tempted to sign off every class email with 'Sarah, Part-time job-share Class parent. Like it or lump it.'   

As part-time work becomes increasingly common, employers need to ensure they provide quality jobs with security, capacity for advancement and decent wages and conditions. Employees need to know they are entitled to ask for such jobs. And we all need to not just accept part-time workers but to show them some respect.

- Daily Life

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