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Second Shift

Why Working Part-Time Isn't The Best Answer For Parents

Cutting back work hours is a natural response to a suddenly hectic home, but it's not always the wisest move.

Why Working Part-Time Isn't The Best Answer For Parents
[Photo: Flickr user Thomas sauzedde]

Lots of parents would like to work part-time. Indeed, "meaningful part-time work is the holy grail" of work/life balance for many women, says Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother magazine. In 2012, the Pew Research Center found that 47% of moms thought part-time work would be ideal, vs. 32% who preferred full-time work.

But it turns out it’s not just women who express this preference. A new Working Mother Research Institute survey, sponsored by Ernst & Young, found that 59% of working fathers say they’d be interested in part-time work too. Yet very few men work part-time. Why? Some 36% of surveyed men said part-timers were looked down upon at their organizations.

Part-time work often is stigmatized, and not just for men. Moms may look past the stigma, or feel like they have no choice, but there might be something to learn from men’s reluctance to choose this option for achieving work/life balance. Part-time work can be great, but it’s not always the best solution for building a full life, especially if you want to keep your career moving forward.

What Is Really "Part-Time?"

Here’s the first problem: the word part-time itself "brings up a whole lot of biases in people’s heads," says Maryella Gockel, a flexibility strategy leader at Ernst & Young.

No one works all 168 hours in a week. You have to sleep at some point, so technically, everyone works part-time in the sense of working only part of their time. Since the words "part" and "full" time don’t actually refer to objective proportions of someone’s time, they start to mean other things, like whether you are fully, or only partly committed to your career.

That need not be inevitable. Gockel notes that her company recently elected a handful of partners and other senior leaders who had been working reduced schedules. But in many organizations, the stigma is there.

Viewed As Less Committed But Working Just As Much

Going part-time makes you seem less committed. Then, to add to the problem, you don’t always wind up working fewer hours. You might, if you have to bill time (as in law, or accounting) or if you get paid by the hour. But in many industries, there’s no accountability for time. I’ve studied hundreds of time logs over the years, often in batches from particular employers when I do corporate workshops. In some cases, I’ve seen people on official part-time schedules working as many hours as colleagues on full-time schedules.

Working fewer hours requires setting strict boundaries with colleagues, and that’s tough to do when you’re happy to have the arrangement. As Jennifer Owens notes, "you’re so grateful that this is happening that you’re bending over backward, giving and giving and not being compensated for it."

That brings us to the third point. Going part-time almost always involves a pay cut. So the question is whether it’s worth it, or whether there might be other ways to achieve the same goals without undermining your career or earning potential.

Often, there are. These days, model work/life initiatives tend to talk about flexibility rather than hours. "We say flexibility is not about working fewer hours. It’s about working differently," says Gockel. If you can make up hours at night after the kids go to bed, then you don’t need to choose a part-time schedule to pick them up at school. If you can work from home when you need to, then you can keep an eye on an aging parent while still being able to contribute.

Moving work around on dimensions of time and place doesn’t require a pay cut in the way that officially reducing your hours does. It just requires having a manager who’s more focused on results than seeing bodies in chairs.

"If there is flexibility to get what you need done, and if you could stay full-time, do it," says Owens. While it’s heartening to see that fathers are as interested as mothers in having a life outside work, going part-time isn’t the only way, or even the best way, to achieve that.

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