Part-time work

The Washington Post today had a front-page story on a recent poll that found that 60 percent of working mothers said that part-time work would be the ideal situation for them.  This is an increase of 12 percent since 1997.

It’s hard to know what to make of this finding since, as the newspaper article points out, only about 1/4 of working mothers work part-time, and that hasn’t increased in the past decade. The question asked was "considering everything, what would be the ideal situation for you, working full-time, working-part time, or not working at all outside the home?"  It’s hard to know how people interpreted that — if people thought about a hypothetical part-time job that paid as much (per hour) as a full-time job, with benefits and interesting work, or if they thought the part-time jobs that are actually out there.  Who wouldn’t want the "have your cake and eat it too" version of part-time work?*

I know I’ve said that at some point I’d like to cut back to part-time (probably 3/5 or 4/5 time) work.  I’d like to spend more time with the boys, and I’d like to have more time to do all the other things (reading, blogging, cooking, hanging out on the lake) that I never have enough time to do.  And I could even do it at my job without it being a major career-limiting move — Rachel Schumacher, who is quoted in the article about her part-time job, works for my organization.

So why don’t I?  Money is the most obvious reason.  I took a paycut when I took this job, and while we’re doing ok, it would be hard to cut our budget by another 20 percent.  T could presumably get a job that would fill the gap, but it would be tricky to align our hours.  This will likely be more manageable when the boys are both in school, and I suspect that we’re headed in that direction (although it will in part depend on how much the market value of T’s professional skills have degraded with his time out of the workforce).

But I also suspect that I’m driven enough that I’d have trouble cutting back on my work commitments.  Take next week for an example.  T has someplace else he needs to be for 2 days– we’ve known about this for months, and I’ve planned to take them off from work to hang out with the boys.  But Monday I learned about a meeting on an issue area that I’ve been trying to get into for the past year. And of course it’s scheduled for one of the days that I’m supposed to be off.  My boss literally didn’t say a word, but I knew I should be there.  So I scrambled, and have lined up some childcare for that morning.  I have a feeling that I’d wind up working at least some of the time as often as not on my days off.

* Well, fathers apparently.  Only 12 percent of fathers said that part-time work would be the ideal situation for them.  But, interestingly, 16 percent said that not working outside the home at all would be the ideal situation for them.  That’s lower than the figure for mothers (29 percent), but I think it’s fascinating that fathers were more likely to chose "not working" than "part-time work" and mothers were more likely to choose "part-time work" than "not working."  Does that mean that there’s more interest among men in "reverse traditional families" than in "equally shared parenting"?  Or that more dads still think that staying home is a permanent vacation?

17 Responses to “Part-time work”

  1. Christine Says:

    I love your last line – Or that more dads still think that staying home is a permanent vacation? My husband does and every once in a while, when he is job-stressed, passes little comments that emphasizes staying home is chore free or doing cleaning, cooking and laundry are like spending a day at the beach because it is at home. As far as ideal work, I am extremely lucky to be able to teach part-time with a flexible schedule for great pay. Since it is union, time is available to call in for illness or a ill child. Alot of women I know who work in business don’t want to teach, but teaching really has flexibility with a higher level of job security than in other areas. Depending on the school, I have seen part-time longevity to be the key to being hired full-time.

  2. Jennifer Says:

    Great post. I know what you mean about how hard it is to do a part time job and be seriously flexible. I had the same experience coming back from maternity leave, and ended up going back to full time earlier than I really wanted to.
    But… if you had had a holiday (with flights somewhere) booked next week, you wouldn’t have cancelled it. And nobody (not even yourself) would have expected you to. It does take a change in mindset – managing part time work – and it’s on both sides. I’ve seen people do it well, and seen people get suckered into working 5 days for 4 days pay.

  3. bj Says:

    But, don’t people who care about their work end up suckering themselves (not necessarily getting suckered by someone else). I understand Elizabeth’s unwillingness to miss a meeting that she’s interested in. And, if she did it would have effects down the road, creating marginalization.
    In my life, it seems like a number of my career successes have required me to be standing around next to someone else at the right time — when they had an idea, when I had an idea, just being there. The amount of time you spend doing work increases those opportunities.
    We’ve had these discussions before on Elizabeth’s blog, and I think that as the workplace evolves, we’re going to realize that there really are some jobs that amenable to part time work while others are not, though those might not be the ones we think they are at this moment (from either the employers or employee’s point of view).
    As an example, how do people who have kids in school feel about part time work for an early-education teacher? what’s your gut reaction to having two part-time teachers in your child’s elementary school classroom? If you like the idea, how would you like it to be structured (different days, morning/afternoon?).

  4. Elizabeth Says:

    I definitely think people sucker themselves into working more than they’re scheduled to, especially in the nonprofit world. Because you’re doing the job because you think it’s important, and staffing is usually so tight that you know that it may well not get done if you don’t do it.
    We looked into a dual language immersion program last year for D — decided against it because it was too far from our home — but it would have been taught by 2 teachers. There are two classrooms in the program, and the English teacher teaches one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, and the Spanish teacher does the reverse. And I think most child care centers have morning and afternoon teachers, with overlap in the middle of the day, but no one wants to work 8-6 on a regular basis.

  5. trishka Says:

    elizabeth, thanks for the reminder to be grateful for what i’ve got – i’m blessed with a part-time job that has great benefits, flexible hours, and is interesting work that i enjoy doing. pretty much the perfect set-up for our family for right now. whether or not i would prefer to work full-time or not, well, that has a lot to do with the fact that my husband essentially works 80hour weeks. (looking to cut back soon, maybe to a more reasonable 60hours). so since he works the equivalent of two full-time jobs, i end up being the primary caregiver for our son, plus responsible for all housework during the hours when i’m not at work and precious snowflake isn’t at daycare. so working full-time right now is just not an option.
    if my husband worked part time or even just a regular full-time schedule? full-time work would be a lot more appealing to me. though i’m afraid DH wouldn’t necessarily see that kicking in a portion of his increased hours at home towards doing housework (laundry, &c) would be what he has in mind. childcare, yes, because he adores PS and loves spending time with him. i don’t know how it would shake out, but for right now part time is it for me.
    waiting until i was older and had my career established made all the difference in being able to work part-time, though. all this david brooks nonsense about not waiting to get married, well. didn’t turn out to be true in my case.

  6. TC Says:

    My old university job was really flexible in terms of letting me work part-time…and letting me bump up my hours or even bump them down whenever I wanted. (Well, they were flexible about it until my boss left, which is why I left soon thereafter.) However, my experience with that “ideal” situation is that it is far from ideal: in fact, a friend of mine stuck a Dilbert cartoon on my cubicle wall that summed it all up. In the cartoon, one of the characters boasts about negotiating to work half time, an idea to which the boss was agreeable, so long as she’d be willing to help out in emergencies. Dilbert’s dead-on response? “So, you basically negotiated a 50% pay cut?”
    Whether I worked 60 percent or 80 percent of 100 percent, the expectations for my position were the same. Maybe the number of articles I was asked to write for our quarterly magazine would be cut, but my main job was to write press releases about breaking scientific news, and there was simply no way to say, “Oh, well, I know we have a major paper coming out in Science, but since I’m only working 60 percent, I’ll be skipping one out of every three major findings…” So I’d end up working extra hard, stressing out more, taking stuff home.
    Still, if I had to go back into an office again (and I may soon have to), I would still rather have a part-time than full time job. Maybe this time…

  7. Amy Says:

    I was mildly dismayed by these survey results, since it makes me feel that we still have so far to go to reach a gender equal society. But I worry about the conclusions being tossed around based on the results. It would be very interesting to find out whether the answers were different for different age groups – for example, I would not be surprised if younger fathers were more receptive to part-time work (or SAHD roles). Also, “part-time” is a really vague term. There is a big difference between working 15-20 hours a week and working 25-35 hours a week. Who knows what a man hears in a phone survey when he is asked if he’d like to work “part-time”. With our society’s assumption that men are supposed to support their families financially, choosing “part-time” sounds like a cop-out. Perhaps choosing “not working at all” might mean to them that someone else is bringing home a full-time salary’s worth of money. But part-time sounds like the family is barely squeaking by. Just a thought.
    I especially dislike the survey question that asks men and women to choose among only three options for what is best for children – the mother working full-time, the mother working part-time and the mother staying at home. Gee – this really depends on what the father is doing, right? Someday, I hope to see a Pew survey that asks these questions in a gender neutral way (or at least in a way that makes the respondent consider the roles of both parents).
    So, I imagine that your question about whether the survey results mean that men would rather reverse roles than practice equally shared parenting is not entirely serious…but it made me think anyway. I’m pretty sure the survey isn’t powered to determine this, and I’m pretty sure this isn’t the survey we’d need to really answer that question. So I’m plowing ahead to do my part to make gender equal marriages a true option for parents!
    Amy from

  8. Christine Says:

    Amy, your post made me think about some of the comments male friends and family pass when they talk about a SAHD. They consider the guy a lazy person or deadbeat. It is just unacceptable to them that a woman would support the family. I wonder if this type of stigma prevents many men from considering part-time work or staying at home. If this type of thinking is common among men it is not going to propel women to have true equality.

  9. landismom Says:

    This is something I’ve been thinking about a fair amount as I consider what my next career move might be. I like the theory of being able to work part-time, but I fear that, like you, my interest in working on specific issues, in an organization that’s working 24/7, would be compromised by an attempt to work a part-time schedule.

  10. Maggie Says:

    The last (or almost last) sentence in the article made me doubt the whole thing. It said something like ‘the 40-hour work week is no longer the norm, so maybe this is nostalgia for the good old days when a full-time job wasn’t 50+ hours.’ I left a part-time job last year . . . where I often worked close to 50 hrs per week (yes, it was a law firm) . . . and I’m now working full time in a federal govt job where I clock 40 hours/week, no more, no less, with rare exception. I LOVE IT. The expectations of the workplace are so different – if you are scheduled to leave at 4:30, you leave at 4:30 – that it is so much less stressful than my allegedly part-time job. Just some food for thought. I think the sentiment from the article is more about what full-time has become than what part-time promises to be.

  11. Daisy Says:

    My co-worker and I looked into job-sharing last year. We would work well together (we already do!), and we would love to cut back on the stress level of our jobs (public school teachers). Unfortunately, the main reason for my eagerness to jobshare, my handicapped child, also means that I need the full income.
    It’s just not a win-win world.

  12. Jennifer Says:

    At my son’s school, there are at two job share classes. The parents I’ve talked to seem pretty relaxed about them, to be honest. Certainly they don’t have the playground stigma that one or two of the full time teachers have (you know, sympathy from the other parents that your child got into that class). They are shared by day – two days one week, three days the next (I think).
    It’s definitely harder being part time in a full time world, and I know (from experience coming back from maternity leave and trying and failing to do it gradually) that if you can be flexible, it’s easy to give in and work the extra hours.
    But when my boss is on one of his endless interstate trips to visit the sales force, nobody holds it against him when he just can’t make that important meeting back at head office. He delegates it, and life goes on. People do sometimes get annoyed with my part time deputy if he can’t make a Friday meeting(which is why he never says where he is in his out of office email every Friday, and why he will sometimes come in for very important ones).
    I do think that there are some jobs that can’t be done part time (Elizabeth has previously used the example of the White House Chief of Staff). But I think there are more jobs that can than is generally imagined. And the more everyone sees it working for someone, the more our imagination extends.

  13. bj Says:

    My, “playground stigma” attached to teachers. I hope that’s not true for any of the teachers in my daughter’s school (where we do have some job-sharing teachers). I also have a friend who did a morning/afternoon job share, for teaching. I’m wary of job-sharing for teaching, because it’s hard for me to imagine two teachers getting as complete knowledge about my child’s strength and weaknesses as one. But I will keep an open mind about it.
    I loved Elizabeth’s example of the teachers switching classrooms, because it made me think. I’ve always been wary, but the example of a language immersion school where two native speakers switch off is a great one, where two people offer more than just one. It’s also a way to have both a french and chinese teacher, for example, as well. In that case, the part-time benefit is coming from the fact that two different individuals have different skill sets.
    I believe in shared parenting — so why not shared teaching? I’ve always thought one of the benefits of two involved parents is that the two adults can get to know the child differently and play to their different knowledge of the child. A shared teaching position might offer the same benefit. I guess, though, I worry about replicating the problem with shared parenting: things dropping through the cracks because no one person is in charge of them — from making sure the from gets sent ot school, to the kid getting picked up. Hey, this discussion has given me food for thought on the issue of part-time benefits to everyone involved (as well as costs).

  14. K Says:

    I’ve been part time for 7 years (at 75% of full time) and am about to embark on a job-share, which will bump me down to 50%.
    For me, part time work has been a fantastic solution. It has its challenges – for sure. But just because you are part-time, doesn’t mean you aren’t driven or smart or ambitious.
    Honestly, my *ideal* solution would be for both parents to work 30 hours/week. I think that would be perfect.

  15. Hannah Says:

    While I absolutely agree with the sentiment of your post and I think the data is interesting, I have to point out a vital problem with your phrasing: your discussion of “working mothers” assumes that women who stay home don’t work. While it’s definitely a quibble and arguably unimportant, this change in the way we discuss “working women” reflects on the value that the society assigns the work that women do both inside and out of the home.

  16. Hannah Says:

    While I absolutely agree with the sentiment of your post and I think the data is interesting, I have to point out a vital problem with your phrasing: your discussion of “working mothers” assumes that women who stay home don’t work. While it’s definitely a quibble and arguably unimportant, this change in the way we discuss “working women” reflects on the value that the society assigns the work that women do both inside and out of the home.

  17. dave.s. Says:

    Here it is! Science! Women like working part time, men like working full time. With charts and graphs, so it must be true!

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