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Four Myths About Working Part Time in the US

Four Myths About Working Part Time in The U.S.

My friend and her husband both work as nurses at a local hospital, coordinating their schedules so both can spend time doing paid work outside the home and care work inside the home. As different needs arise, they adjust their working hours. The result is that they get to share the responsibilities of both caregiving and breadwinning.

When I heard this, I first celebrated that such an arrangement can exist in the United States at all. Then, I felt a twinge of jealousy. I even spent a few harried moments calculating whether my husband and I—both in our thirties with two kids and five degrees between us—could go back and become RNs. You see, while I feel a strong pull to be physically present in the lives of my kids as they grow up and I want to devote plenty of brainspace to family matters, I also experience the depletion that can come with taking care of kids all day, every day. This is demanding for anyone, but for those of us with mental health challenges, it can be especially overwhelming. I’ve found that one way to keep myself emotionally well is to spend some time doing non-caregiving work. It feels good to use my non-parental training and skills, generate income, and interact with other adults.

The solution seems simple: I could spend part of my time each week using my education and skills at work and the remainder of my time caring for my kids. But I’ve come to learn that a part-time job for someone like me is hard to find. I’m overqualified for most part-time listings, but I’m disqualified from most of the jobs that interest me because I’m not seeking full-time work.

I’m not the only woman who feels this way. Women are more than twice as likely as men to voluntarily seek part-time work. However, the US labor market offers a dearth of quality options for part-time job seekers. In the US, we defend our lack of quality part-time jobs with several flawed assumptions. Abandoning these mistaken paradigms will help us build a society that is better for everyone.

Myth #1: Working part time is a privilege that must be earned.

One faulty notion is that part-time work is a privilege that can only be earned by working full time first. Many of the women who have those “unicorn” part-time jobs got them by working full time first. Once these women had “proven” their value, their employers could see that keeping them part time (rather than losing a great employee) was a win for everyone. 

Even the federal government, which does a better job than most employers at offering part-time work and job-sharing, has a process that requires an employee to start in a full-time position and then submit a proposal to switch her job to part time. 

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That some employers allow workers to switch to part-time work is positive, and we need more of this. But if switching from full time is the only path to a quality part-time job, employers miss out on talent, and many people don’t have needed on-ramps to quality work. Women—like me—who start families before finishing their education don’t have the opportunity to cement themselves in full-time work to “earn” the right to work part time, even if they want to. Many other women take time out of the workforce when they have young children and would ease back in sooner if there were more high-quality opportunities to do so at less than the expected full-time hours. When employers are designing jobs, they should keep these people in mind by intentionally designing more part-time and job-shared positions.

Myth #2: Offering part-time work is untenable because of benefits.

Probably the biggest hang-up Americans have about part-time work is benefits–and I can’t fault anyone for resisting additional entanglement in our nation’s nightmarishly complex health insurance system. Employers pay a lot toward health insurance for their employees, and when that insurance is bought in batches it can get messy to figure out how a part-time worker fits into all of it.

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However, short of overhauling our country’s entire healthcare system, a little creativity can yield many possible solutions. In the event that a company can’t financially justify offering health insurance to a part-time employee, the company could instead provide a health-insurance stipend, prorated to the number of hours worked by the employee. So, for example, if the company usually spends $1,000 per month on a 40-hour employee’s health insurance, it could offer a 20-hour employee $500 per month toward purchasing her own health insurance. Such solutions make part-time work a viable option for both companies and employees who can’t afford to lose their benefits when they go part time.

Myth #3: Part-time workers are less valuable than full-time workers.

Many employers follow the logic that a half-time employee is half as valuable as a full-time employee, but this is not the case. In reality, part-time jobs benefit organizations in multiple ways: they can increase diversity, improve efficiency, and boost worker retention. 

To start, including part-time workers is valuable because it increases diversity in the workplace. Growing evidence shows that diversity is important to a company’s bottom line. In particular, hiring more women has been shown to increase teams’ collective intelligence and ability to radically innovate, and companies with more women leaders are more profitable than male-dominated companies. In the public sector, decades of research document the benefits of female leadership. Organizations that want these women-powered advantages should create more part-time, highly skilled jobs to attract more female employees.

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When they do, they may well discover more benefits than those associated with a gender-diverse workforce. Remember the women we discussed in section one, who had to earn the right to go part time at their jobs? Many of these women found that in their part-time hours they could accomplish more than half of their previous full-time output. One could argue that employers get more bang for their buck by hiring highly skilled part-time workers. Since these workers have fewer hours on the job, they find ways to work more efficiently.

Finally, when you give employees the work environment they want, they are loyal. Providing both flexibility and meaningful part-time jobs can be ways for companies to attract and keep great employees.

Myth #4: Offering part-time work to women is sexist.

Yet another argument against part-time work comes from an unexpected source: the glass ceiling shatterers. Too often, the crusade for gender equality skews only to the side that women should be more like men. In the workplace, advocates of gender equality argue that women should be able to do the same kind of full-time work as men and receive equal pay. Of course, this is true. No question. 

However, not all women want to work full time. And why do we assume all men want to work full time? In the United States, there are so few quality part-time positions that working part time becomes almost a non-option. Women who have children must either lean in or lean out, with no middle road. Dads can either work full time or be unemployed. Why do we assume it has to be this way?

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Millennial fathers are different from the stereotypical uninvolved businessdads of the 1960s. Today’s dads are much more likely to see parenting as an important part of their identity, and on average they spend almost triple the amount of time caring for children as the typical dad did in 1965. Couple these trends with the rising share of women in the workforce, and it only makes sense that more households want to divide their breadwinning and caregiving work more evenly.

Both women and men who desire to work part time should have ample opportunities to do so. This is one hugely overlooked way that we can build a more egalitarian life balance for couples and families.

Other Countries Have Successfully Abandoned These Myths.

Such an egalitarian life balance isn’t just a dream in some far-off future. It’s happening right now in other parts of the world. The world leader in this arena is the Netherlands, where nearly 60% of Dutch women work part time. In contrast to the US, where most part-time jobs are marginal jobs, the Netherlands boasts many part-time positions for highly-skilled workers. Across genders, 26.5% of workers with tertiary education work part time, and 25% of workers in high-skills technical, professional, and managerial fields also work part time. Dutch couples tend to favor the “one-and-a-half” worker model with 42.4% of partnered adults choosing for one adult (usually a man) to work full time and the other (typically a woman) to work part time. 

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Repeated efforts to lure more Dutch women into full-time positions have failed. Puzzled scholars and policymakers have finally realized that perhaps these Dutch women who are working part-time are happy. Indeed, only 4% of them report that they’d prefer to work full time. Two big reasons for this are that in the Netherlands, part-time work is institutionalized and that health benefits are not tied to employment. 

In the United Kingdom, laws protect part-time workers from unfair treatment. Benefits like vacation time, pensions, and health insurance are required for part-time workers, and provided on a prorated basis—similar to the method we discussed in myth number two, above. Additionally, if an established full-time employee requests to switch to part-time employment, United Kingdom employers have three months to consider the request and must provide documented reasons if they deny the switch.

We Can Achieve a Better Balance.

Imagine an American culture in which households can configure their work patterns exactly how they want to. One partner works outside the home 20 hours per week; the other works outside the home 30 hours per week. Both have the time they want to spend with their children, and both have satisfying work. Or maybe both work outside the home 40 hours a week, and they have disposable income to invest in high-quality childcare. Or maybe one parent wants to be at home full time, and the other wants to be at work full time. A world where all these options are equally possible and equally destigmatized would be better for parents, children, and, yes, even employers. If we can reframe some of our faulty paradigms and learn from neighboring nations, we can create a healthier work environment for all of us.

Editing credential to Bethany Bartholemew.

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