They choose to work part time after having kids, as they prioritise family life over the career ladder. And then they get used to working part time and rarely go back to working full time after the kids have grown up.
This is a classic explanation to why more women than men work part time – not least in the public sector. But is this the whole truth?
No, according to some recent studies.
For example, figures from the YS Employment Outlook Survey from 2012, conducted by the Norwegian Work Research Institute, show that many Norwegian women work part time primarily for health reasons.
”So automatically linking women’s part-time work to family considerations can be misleading, since there are usually other factors involved,” says Norwegian working life researcher Cathrine Egeland.
Egeland is involved in NIKK’s project Part-Time Work in the Nordic Region and is right now systematising the most important reasons why women and men in the Nordic countries choose to work part time.
A large Danish research project on part-time work in the Danish regions reached the same conclusion in 2012. The project was started by the Danish regions in cooperation with a number of Danish trade unions and showed that personal conditions and high workloads are main reasons why for example hospital and eldercare workers choose to work part time.
The work environment is stressful, the report found – in particular for workers who are in direct contact with citizens, such as nurses, teachers and social workers. Most of those who participated in the study were pessimistic about the thought of working full time – even if it would benefit them financially.
Thus, the findings indicate that the work environment should be kept in mind when discussing women’s preference for part-time work. But exactly which problems do they encounter at work?
When the Danish Working Environment Authority in 2009 decided to look closer at the work environment in the Danish eldercare sector, it made major headlines in Danish media.
More than one-third of the nursing homes and eldercare centres were reprimanded for significant weaknesses in the psychological work environment. The time pressure was too great, the workload too heavy and the demands too overwhelming, the study found.
A home care assistant working the evening shift could for example say that she had up to 52 home visits scheduled from 3 to 11 pm. During this time, she was expected to help some clients use the toilet, treat painful bedsores and keep dying individuals company. In addition to the driving, of course.
Eldercare is one of the sectors in Denmark and the rest of the Nordic region with a large proportion of female workers. And many of them work part time. It is also a sector with a relatively high rate of sick leave – and this may not be surprising.
Because in a job where you do not feel you are in control, there is a risk you will get physically ill. This was found in a large Finnish research project.
In the project, researchers studied the relationships between health, sick leave and the feeling of control over one’s work time among about 25 000 public employees in 10 Finnish communities.
‘Lack of control over one’s work time may lead to frustration with one’s work situation. Poor predictability can lead to stress and anxiety and may increase the risk for health problems such as cardiovascular disease, inflammatory reactions and mental problems. Both problems may lead to increased sick leave,’ says Ari Väänenen, geriatrics researcher at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, which coordinated the study.
‘Voluntary’ part-time work?
The high-pressure work environment in the health and human care field is nothing new. But why do the predominantly female workers in these fields choose to work part time while workers in other equally demanding sectors do not?
‘Health and human care jobs in the municipal sector are often used as an example of this. But the work conditions in some male-dominated sectors can also be stressful and demanding – without a high rate of part-time workers,’ says Egeland.
One explanation, according to many researchers and practitioners, has to do with gender roles and how men and women share responsibilities in the private sphere.
For example, the Danish study on part-time work in different regions clearly indicated that the demanding work conditions that the female part-time workers experienced were closely linked to the sharing of responsibilities in the household.
‘When women work part time, they often do it because they already work full time at home. So it’s not because they’re lazy. On the contrary. One problem with this is that it helps maintain women’s lower salaries, and their pension accounts of course also suffer,’ said Grete Christensen, head of the Danish health worker confederation Sundhedskartellet, when the report was presented in 2012.
So, if you work full time in the private sphere, you will probably choose a part-time paid job.
A recurring theme in the debate on part-time work among women is how ‘voluntary’ their work really is.
It is not just a matter of how the work is distributed between the genders, it is also about how society is organised, says Anna-Karin Wall from at the Swedish Municipal Workers’ Union.
‘About 30 per cent of the labour force work evenings and weekends, but less than half of all Swedish municipalities offer childcare during these hours,’ she says.
An interview survey from the Swedish Trade Union Confederation shows that one parent in four cannot work full time due to the hours preschools are open – and that this was a bigger problem for mothers than fathers.
‘I think it’s difficult to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary part-time work. Is it voluntary when a woman with irregular work hours has to work part time due to lack of childcare? Is it voluntary when she feels forced to work part time because her parents’ eldercare is not working well?’ she asks.