A genuine right to part-time work

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 25, 2007

Judith Warner wrote a “column”:http://select.nytimes.com/gst/tsc.html?URI=http://select.nytimes.com/2007/07/24/opinion/24warner.html&OQ=_rQ3D1Q26thQ26emcQ3Dth&OP=5051bb3fQ2FdTYrdQ3F1affQ3FdkwwDdwDdkAdfQ7E.Q7D.fQ7DdkAT5aQ7DYa_Q3CQ3FQ5BP in yesterday’s NYT (unfortunately behind the pay-wall) on the need to make part-time work genuinely available for all American workers. She argues that study after study shows that up to 80% of mothers, both those holding jobs or caring at home, want to work part-time, but that currently only 24% do so because “part-time work doesn’t pay”:

Women on a reduced schedule earn almost 18 percent less than their full-time female peers with equivalent jobs and education levels, according to research by Janet Gornick, a professor of sociology and political science at City University of New York, and the labor economist Elena Bardasi. Part-time jobs rarely come with benefits. They tend to be clustered in low-paying fields like the retail and service industries. And in better-paid professions, a reduced work schedule very often can mean cutting down from 50-plus hours a week to 40-odd — hardly a “privilege” worth paying for with a big pay cut.

As Warner correctly concludes, it doesn’t have to be this way, since in several European countries workers enjoy the same protection and receive prorated pay and benefits compared to full-time workers.

The country that I’m living in is the world champion in part-time work; and for most workers, there are no barriers to work part-time if they like to do so – there are plenty of part-time jobs available, from 12 to 32 hours a week, and most employers find it the most natural thing if employees (though in reality that’s still mainly mothers) want to shift to part-time work when they become parents.

Everything taken together, I think that such a part-time paradise is probably the best of all existing worlds. It allows people to have richer lives (in terms of quality of life) than a life that only consists in working for pay. It allows parents to spend more time with their children, which is a good thing for all sorts of reasons such as “the ones we’ve discussed at CT before”:https://crookedtimber.org/2006/05/04/sue-gerhardt-on-why-love-matters-daycare-revisited/. And “I suspect”:https://crookedtimber.org/2007/02/15/a-paradise-for-children/ that the high percentage of part-time workers among mothers also explains why the Netherlands came out on top in the recent UNICEF study on the well-being of children.

However, despite all this good news this part-time paradise is not perfect either. The problem is that the real opportunities of part-time work come together with an ideology about mothering that is strongly disapproving of mothers working full-time. It is strongly discouraged, not just by family, friends and neighbours, but also by the child care centres, to bring your child to childcare 5 days a week (which in close neighbour Belgium is not an issue at all). I recently heard a similar complaint from a Swedish mother-academic; she told me that she experienced a ‘competition’ among parents to pick up their child from childcare as early as possible in the day – say, around 3 pm. Clearly if your child is the only child left in the childcare centre at 4 pm, it’s awkward, to say the least, only to pick her up at 5 or 6 pm. I don’t know how widespread this experience is in Sweden or other Nordic Countries, though, and it’s hard to find studies on the prevalence of these kind of social norms. In any case, such social norms are also an important factor shaping parents’ opportunity sets – it’s not just the legislation or institutional facilities.

The other social norms related to part-time work are the gender norms: part-time work is predominantly women’s business. Fathers often report that the organisational culture at work is such that they cannot ask for reduced hours. In part this can be explained because men are more likely to work in ‘masculine’ jobs which have more competitive values. But another issue is that men are not willing to take the risks that part-time work brings with them, such as reduced chance for promotion. And frankly, I also think that some men use the (alleged) unwillingness of their employers as a welcome excuse, since they don’t want to spend a full weekday at home with the baby, but don’t want to say that to their partner. So rather than both parents (of straight couples) working each 4 days a week, it’s more likely to see the men continuing to work full-time, and the women working 3 days a week.

From an American perspective these norm-issues may well be luxury problems, and everything taken together I do strongly prefer the Dutch or Swedish model over the American. But if only we knew how to change the institutional conditions and removing all these restricting social norms in one go!



mollymooly 07.25.07 at 1:14 pm

The Swedish anecdote suggests all reduced-hours mothers are starting work at the normal time and finishing early. What if some mothers start late and finish at six (or whenever)? If childcare facilities accommodate that, then I guess the “one child left behind” problem goes away.


abb1 07.25.07 at 1:47 pm

In Switzerland elementary schools are open 4 days a week, no school on Wednesday. I heard people saying that this is their way of keeping women from working, don’t know if this is true.


Brett Bellmore 07.25.07 at 2:03 pm

“But if only we knew how to change the institutional conditions and removing all these restricting social norms in one go!”

I wonder if the restricting social norms are what make the institutional conditions you like feasible?


Bloix 07.25.07 at 2:26 pm

One of the reasons it’s hard for US employers to offer part-time work with benefits is that health care premiums are the same for part-time and full-time workers. If an employer offers health care as a benefit, then part-time workers cost, per hour, much more than full-time workers.

In Europe, of course, health care is not provided as an employment benefit, and therefore employers are not concerned with the cost of health care in making employment decisions.


Crystal 07.25.07 at 2:46 pm

Having decent part-time jobs would benefit not just parents. Older people might not want to retire, yet also might not to work 60 hours a week. And some people with disabilities that cause pain and fatigue might not have the stamina for a full workweek, but don’t want to be forced onto disability benefits. A 20-hour workweek might be just right for such a person.

Of course, this sort of setup demands universal health care, which we don’t have (yet) in the US, and I see as one of the biggest barriers to good part-time jobs.


fred lapides 07.25.07 at 3:20 pm

Many colleges now prefer part-time instructors: they avoid tenure; can fire when wanted; avoid all benefits; pay very little. The model is as usual what takes place in the larger corporate world. Using partimers is a way to avoid illegals or outsourcing work and still paying as little as possible.


luci 07.25.07 at 6:31 pm

I don’t have kids, but I still think a 32-hour work week would be optimum. And I think lots of others would agree, and accept less pay (proportionately). The fact that the option doesn’t exist is, what, a collective action problem? A problem of “lumpy” labor units, with higher upfront costs/increasing returns with more hours?

In some professions it seems even 40-hour weeks are hard to find, with 45-50 being the norm.

“rather than both parents working each 4 days a week, it’s more likely to see the men continuing to work full-time, and the women working 3 days a week.”

If there’s a non-linear loss from reduced hours (a 30 hour part-time job doesn’t pay 3/4 of a 40 hour job) then it makes sense to sacrifice only one career in that way. Of course, it doesn’t have to be the female’s.


clew 07.25.07 at 7:42 pm

Being able to vary ones’ hours, without falling off some continental shelf of returns, allows even more than egalitarian parenting; artists would like less controlling day-jobs, students and early entrepreneurs could support themselves longer, etc.


H. E. Baber 07.25.07 at 8:08 pm

The NYTimes Mag has a piece forthcoming next Sunday on family leave, part-time, flextime and the like at http://select.nytimes.com/preview/2007/07/29/magazine/1154683139596.html?8tpw&emc=tpw which I suspect you need Times Select to get. It’s pretty good–cites studies showing that both men and women presented with identical resumes rate mothers much lower than women without kids, etc.

I think it would be nice of all Americans got shorter hours, longer vacations and more flexibility–to get closer to the norm in affluent countries. But making part-time work available in circumstances where women with young children are likely to be the overwhelming majority of the takers is just going to further reinforce that stereotype and put women at a greater disadvantage.

It isn’t the money. Even eliminating the ratchet effect, pro-rating pay and keeping benefits. Part-time workers don’t get the opportunities–they’re viewed as being less competent and less committed. Going part-time from what I’ve seen is going from a career to a job.

It goes for guys to some extent too: consider the way most departments treat adjuncts–some of whom have the same qualifications as tenure-track faculty and active research programs. OK, they’re part-time, the money isn’t there to pay them decently and they don’t get benefits. Bad. But they don’t get the free perks either, don’t go to department meetings, aren’t eligible to apply for a variety of competitive merit-based internal funding, and don’t get travel money even when they read papers at conferences and put the university’s name on the program.

Part-time status is in and of itself professionally disadvantageous. When women with kids go part-time they get a triple whammy: the disadvantage of being female, the even bigger disadvantage of being a mother and the part-time disadvantage to boot.


reuben 07.25.07 at 8:30 pm

making part-time work available in circumstances where women with young children are likely to be the overwhelming majority of the takers is just going to further reinforce that stereotype and put women at a greater disadvantage

Anecdote: My girlfriend works at a large, very family-friendly British organisation. She’s middle management, and has a lovely job (much better than mine). Good hours, good pay, a fair amount of responsibility.

We’re having a kid soon, and after maternity leave, she’ll be able to return at the exact same level, exact same pay, etc. In the short term, her career won’t suffer at all. In comparison to most other mothers in the UK, she’s very lucky.

Not surprisingly, her organisation is full of happy mothers. What’s interesting is that at her middle management rank, mothers constitute a signficant majority of staff. But what about the next level up, ie senior management? That level is almost exclusively men – because at that level, 40 hours a week isn’t enough anymore, you have to work 50-60. The mothers don’t feel it’s worth it / can’t balance that sort of commitment with being good mothers. Most of the people at that rank are fathers, and almost all of them have stay at home wives.


c.l. ball 07.25.07 at 9:20 pm

Most of the people at that rank are fathers, and almost all of them have stay at home wives.

My wife and I encountered a similar dynamic at a hedge fund she joined. We asked the HR person if she could get daycare recommendations from any of my wife’s future and predominantly male colleagues. The word back from HR was that no one used daycare — their wives stayed at home.


robd 07.25.07 at 10:06 pm

Working at a company in the Netherlands, I have various (mostly male) colleagues working 5, 4.5, 4, 3, and 2 days a week .
Should U.S Libertarians not be campaigning hard for so much choice?


Tyrone Slothrop 07.26.07 at 12:30 am

In the for-profit legal world, a barrier to part-time work is that, setting salary apart, most of an employer’s costs are fixed (rent, health insurance, etc.). This means that all of the profits are on the margin. In essence, full-time workers labor a certain number of hours each year to cover these fixed costs, and then everything is pure profit to the employer. Part-time workers upset this calculus.


vivian 07.26.07 at 1:18 am

We need to both expand options for work/life balances, AND keep pointing to the hidden sexism, insisting on breaking it down. There is no magical fix for a society with some nasty gender roles, expectations and informal enforcement. The practical solutions, like flexible hours, part-time work, childcare benefits, are really useful to actual parents – but people will interpret them in light of their deeper beliefs.

It’s kind of like the debate on legalizing prostitution: the evidence is that legal, tolerated or prohibited, somehow or another lots of women are going to suffer. We’ve got to target the suffering – or the sexism – directly.


Ingrid Robeyns 07.26.07 at 6:03 am

The point about universal health care being a condition for part-time work to get off the ground is very true – in fact, in Europe we take this so much for granted that I didn’t even mention it in the post.

The problems that some commenters pointed out about the disadvantages of part-time work are *not* intrinsic to part-time work; they only show up in an particular setting with certain institutional and cultural characteristics, as seems to be the case in the US. The Netherlands is a proof of this claim, since the only disadvantage that part-timers have is that they are less likely to make promotion, and hence to get the maximum out of their professional talents and abilities. But in return for that, they get a higher quality of life (or at least, their families), in other spheres of life. There are none of the plain disadvantages such as the ones pointed out by h.e.barber in her comments (#9). Take the phenomenon of the US Adjunct in academia – apart from an outlier case at some department in financial trouble, this is not a standard practice.

Of course, the difficult question is whether under circumstances such as currently in the US advocating part-time work is a good thing. If expanding the availability of part-time work means that more vulnerable workers will be exploited, than part-time advocates need to think twice. So the US draft legislation (that Warner also mentions in her column) should be carefully written so that it helps to expand high-quality part-time work, not exploitative part-time work. I hope that’s politically feasible. Perhaps after the next elections?


David Wright 07.26.07 at 6:24 am

I am mightily amused by Ms. Robeyns’s contortions as she attempts to navigate the various unintended consequences of her attempts to nudge society along various axes. I do give her credit for being honest and upfront about them; most would-be social engineers simply deny the existence of any unintended effects.

I do wonder what objective criteria she imagines using to distinguish “high-quality” from “exploitative” part-time work. I suspect that, in the end, she means she wants flexibility for the upper-middle classes and social engineering for the poor.


Ingrid Robeyns 07.26.07 at 7:23 am

david wright, I think you are misunderstanding me – so let me try to clarify. “Exploitative” refers to the issues that have been pointed out in the comments as potential dangers of part-time work, such as lower pay for the same work, no health care, no secondary benefits and so forth. As h.e.barber’s example of the adjunct professor makes clear, at present this kind of exploitative labour conditions can as much be a problem for part-time upper-middle class workers as for part-time working poor. In the European countries where part-time workers enjoy the same legal protection as full-time workers, there are no such disadvantages of part-time workers – independent whether the work is cleaning, working in a storage, caring in a nursery home, teaching, an office job or anything else.
To my mind, it thus seems rather straightforward how we could distinguish “high-quality” from “epxloitative” part-time work – namely whether or not working part time rather than full-time implies all these risks of lower pro-hour wages, loss of health care, and other secondary benefits. In short, the labels ‘high-quality’ versus ‘exploitative’ do not refer to the nature of the work, but to the conditions of its part-time nature. Perhaps that was not clear from my previous comment.


Tim Worstall 07.26.07 at 9:44 am

#13 makes the point. There’s a good reason that part time work gets less per hour than full time work. There are overheads associated with employing someone. Those have to be averaged out over the hours worked.
It was one of the more unexpected recommendations (among 40) of the Women and Work Commission in the UK, that there should thus be a subsidy to employers to cover this cost of part time and jobshare working.
Me, I’d run it the other way, those who wish to benefit from part time working should also bear those costs: that is, the current situation that part time pay per hour is lower.
But leaving aside who should pay for it, can we all at least agree that there are such costs and that someone has to pay them?


reason 07.26.07 at 1:14 pm

I thought where we came in to this topic was that the children of part time workers were the beneficiaries. So you are all for future tax rises to subsidise employers I take it? -)


Ingrid Robeyns 07.26.07 at 1:51 pm

yes, I agree that the overhead costs of part-time workers are the same as for full-time workers and therefore the average cost per hour of employing them is higher. But how much that difference is depends on institutional factors – such as whether health care is organised through the labour market or not. I’ve also read arguments by employers/managers that part-time workers are better at time management and therefore have higher productivity during the hours that they work – but these are just opinions based on their own experiences, not anything based on research. (if someone knows findings from research, do let us know).

My guess is that this cost difference is not very high – and if that’s the case than I would consider it a price that a political community should be prepared to pay for the higher quality of life of the citizens, and especially children, and the positive effects of part-time workers on the community (I am almost sure that they are contributing more with their voluntary work to the community than full-time workers, in this country at least).

If the average (social) cost difference of a part-time woker would be very high (as can be the case for part-time working medical doctors whose expensive studies have been heavily subsidised by the taxpayers, as is the case in many EU countries), then I am less sure. Perhaps the costs should be shared? I have no firm views on this and am happy to be persuaded either way.


dave heasman 07.26.07 at 2:43 pm

“If the average (social) cost difference of a part-time worker would be very high (as can be the case for part-time working medical doctors whose expensive studies have been heavily subsidised by the taxpayers, as is the case in many EU countries), then I am less sure.”

Oh, but comparing the “social” cost of an expensively-trained (sunk cost) doctor working part-time or not working at all, and that’s quite often the choice available, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?


Tim Worstall 07.26.07 at 3:04 pm

# 19. Yes, I’m all in favour of taxing children.


leederick 07.26.07 at 5:58 pm

I think all this talk about overhead costs obscures a deeper point. The whole idea that if someone gets less per hour than a full timer that they’re getting lower pay for the same work, and this is unfair, is just an article of faith on the part of feminist economists. It follows if you assume that when you employ someone you’re only buying an unit of labour, and that unit’s measured in time. But I’ve never heard any good reason to think that’s actually the case.


H. E. Baber 07.26.07 at 6:18 pm

23. I never heard of this dogma. Is this something feminist economists keep under wraps as part of the secret gnosis for initiates?

How much workers, part-time or full-time, are worth per hour is an empirical question and looking at the case I know–adjuncts at my place–it’s pretty clear that the magnitude of the difference in wages per hour and benefits between adjuncts and me, a tenured full professor is way out of whack with differences in productivity. I’d bet that this goes out in the Real World too.


Ingrid Robeyns 07.26.07 at 7:06 pm

leederick, this is silly. There are very few, if any, articles of faith among feminist economists, and this one is certainly not one of them (I spent enough time both among non-feminist or anti-feminist economists and among feminist economists to be able to say this with confidence – in fact, the reason why economists become feminist heterodox is precisely because of the many blind spots and unquestioned (sexist) assumptions in mainstream economics). Surely you will be able to point to one or a few feminist economists who will take it for granted that part-time workers should earn the same pro-hour than full-time workers, but most will be happy to debate these things – as I think we’re trying to do in this thread, among other things.


cm 07.27.07 at 3:06 pm

There are 2 aspects to part-time work: “job/work sharing” and “reduced hours”. Distributing work between more people works for some types of work and not for others — basically it works when the work can be structured as smallish independent tasks, not so well where there is substantial many-to-many coordination/communication overhead.

(Moderately) reducing hours to let’s say 30-35 I suspect will have quite little impact on sustained weekly-based productivity, based on my empirical observations how much (or rather little) work actually gets done in high-pressure office environments where 45+ hours is the de facto baseline.


tm 07.27.07 at 7:04 pm

This is in response to #20.

The argument appears to me to beg two questions. First, why should the size of the costs associated with part time work have any role at all in determining how those costs are spread? Whatever the size, shouldn’t they be borne primarily by the same group of people that primarily benefits from part time work (i.e. part time workers)? And second, if we assume that the costs associated with part time work are small, why does that support shifting those costs onto the political community as a whole? Why impose them on a community that includes many full time workers who benefit from the possibility of part time work indirectly at best?


H. E. Baber 07.28.07 at 4:58 pm

Response to #27. Beyond the benefits to the community cited in #20, making part-time work and other accommodations feasible for those who need/want them is an insurance scheme for those who don’t–but, given unforseen and unforseeable circumstances might. My house hasn’t caught fire yet, and I doubt that it will, but I’m still happy to pay for a fire department.

There’s a principle here that goes beyond the part-time work issue: does the political community want a high-risk pay-as-you-go system or does it want to kick in a little for an insurance scheme that provides more flexibility and more viable options. I’ve never worked part-time, never wanted to work part-time even when my kids were little, and doubt that I ever will want or need to work part-time, but I’m perfectly happy to pay for the “indirect benefit” of that possibility. IMHO people benefit from mere possibilities and more practically, my circumstances or tastes could change. And that’s just from the purely egoistic point of view.

Ancient Rome, at least according to the story my mother told, had a privately-owned pay-as-you-go fire department run by Crassus who got rich by making confiscatory deals with citizens whose houses were burning down. It’s probably a false etymology but I’d like to think that that’s where our word “crass” comes from.


tm 07.28.07 at 6:49 pm

I kind of like the insurance scheme idea but I’m not sure how far it goes. There may be certain risks that people want to insure against, and in some cases maybe buying such insurance should be mandatory. But surely it doesn’t follow that mandatory insurance is right for every class of risk, or that it would be desirable on net in this context. More specifically, there is at least a conceptual distinction between people who are forced to work part time as a result of circumstances outside their control and people who work part time because it suits their values. With respect to the latter group, does the fire department analogy hold up?


H. E. Baber 07.28.07 at 10:25 pm

You’re invoking the distinction that makes trouble for luck egalitarianism–in this case mandatory insurance schemes to neutralize brute luck vs. mandatory insurance against changing tastes and choices for which we’re responsible. I’m a hard determinist so I don’t put a lot of weight on that distinction. But even apart from that, people are in fact willing to pay for more options and more flexibility even if they themselves don’t take advantage of those options through a mandatory tax supported system.

The public subsidizes a system of higher education with a lot of expensive flexibility built in that doesn’t only insure people against changes of circumstance but against changes of heart. Even taking into account the state interest in producing more people with job skills I think this system is still more expensive than one in which at 18 you decide irrevocably whether or not to go to college and what field to study and what career path to pursue if you go to (a state subsidized) college. The public however is prepared to pay for that insurance policy for themselves and their kids–for more flexibility and more options, even if we ourselves don’t take advantage of them. We don’t say you made your career decision at 18–if you decide to change your mind now because your tastes or values have changed you have to pay for it yourself at out of state rates or at a private college.


tm 07.29.07 at 4:03 pm

Yes, but I think it’s also worth pointing out that while the set of risks we face is basically limitless, it’s only a finite portion of our budget that can be spent on insurance. Given that asymetry, I’m not sure I see why the average person would be interested in taking out insurance against the “risk” of later forming desires that require lots of money to satisfy. I would think that the average person would be much more interested insuring against risks that cannot be more easily prevented and which would make it even more difficult for them to lead satisfying lives (i.e. the risk of serious illness, longterm unemployment, etc). Don’t you?


H. E. Baber 07.29.07 at 4:52 pm

But now you’ve gone back your original claim that in #28 that the size of the costs shouldn’t matter–they should still be born by the beneficiaries. Size is precisely one of the things that should matter when the political community assesses the costs and benefits of buying into an insurance scheme.

I’m hot on this now because I’m working on a project on the Capability Approach and trying to collect (theoretically uncorrupted) intuitions about the value of effective freedom as such–of having lots of options that one does not exercise. Intuitions vary widely. I am an option hog, not only risk-averse to the highest degree but modally risk-averse: I would pay heavily to be insured against bad things that I knew will never happen to me and to have options I know I will never take. I have a taste for mere possibilities.

Even if most people aren’t as modally risk-averse as I am my informal surveys suggest that they are prepared to pay, though not as much as I would, for options that they themselves won’t take, and even buy insurance for others. That’s the core of the moral point of view, isn’t it? “I won’t ever need or want to go part-time, I won’t ever be stuck working at a lousy job, I won’t ever be poor. But there are lots of people who need or want the option of part-time work, opportunities to avoid being stuck at lousy work, ways out of poverty so it COULD have been me.”


tm 07.29.07 at 5:55 pm

Here’s another take on the insurance idea –

People who work full time are doing so at the cost of substantial personal sacrifices (less time with the family, less time for hobbies, less vacation time …). Because employers prefer full time workers for whatever reason, they try to attract them by paying out a bonus over and above the hourly wage of part time employees. If that’s right, then essentially what you’re “insuring against” is the decision not to pursue a wage bonus. Again, it’s sort of difficult for me to see why purchasing insurance against that kind of risk would seem like an appealing idea to people. Which of course is not to mention the fact that forcing full time workers to give up a portion of that bonus in order to take out insurance smacks of unfairness. Or at least that’s my opinion …

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