Thursday, 28 January 2010

How flexible are flexible working hours for parents really?

One of the most laudable initiatives to encourage a work - life balance that suits parents is that of flexible working hours. In theory at least. When I got pregnant, I had just changed to a new, permanent post. Part (and I stress part!) of the attraction of the new post which made me change jobs while pregnant and willingly relinquish the right to additional maternity leave was the greater job security (for once not an annually funded job in the voluntary sector) and the knowledge that a bigger organisation might be able to accommodate flexible working hours.

Upon my return, I reduced my hours to a four day week, which was hard at first but now suits me perfectly. Well, I sometimes wonder if a 3 day working week would be closer to perfection but on the whole, I'm happy with the arrangement.

Then there was a massive restructure of the organisation, one that got rid of my job. So for a while I was looking for a new job, while still hoping that there would be a different job for me in the new structure (which there was). When I was applying for jobs it became crystal clear that flexible working hours are fabulous if you are already in a job when you have a baby. However, if you want to change to a new job, things aren't so rosy. It's down to two options: you either take a well paid full time job, or a badly paid part time job. As to the badly paid part time job, they aren't just badly paid because you'll only work 2 1/2 days a week. Even the pro rata equivalent is significantly lower than a comparable full time job. My idea to land a full time job and then ask for job share or a four day week were illusionary at best. While I was confident that this was an option, the first post interview indication that I was hoping to do a 4 day week was greeted with great surprise and maybe was the reason why I didn't get the job.

Effectively, flexible working hours are only an option if you are already in a job (and your employer is kind). For those looking for employment, particularly those who have kids first and then look at a career, the outlook is dire. Underpaid part time jobs, sessional work or minimum wage are the price you pay for trying to spend some quality time with your children while still being economically active.

Effectively, because most people looking for flexible working hours are mothers (but clearly all fathers looking for flexible working hours are as affected by this), this situation leads to unequal pay for working mothers.

The root of the problem, in my view is that we are still entrenched in a 9-5 work pattern where flexibility is undesirable, although it may in fact be more efficient (for my part, I'm sure I work more intensely in the 4 days that I've got and that my employer is getting a good deal out of me). Maybe a bit of awareness raising around this issue might not be a bad thing, or an encouragement or even legal obligation for employers to offer any desired working hours set-up for new recruits, including one that would enable single parents to work from 9.30-2.30, i.e. during school hours.

It would be one step in the right direction towards enabling mothers to take up suitable and appropriately paid employment.

What about you? Are you on flexible working hours? What has been your experience? Have you changed jobs looking for flexible working hours? Did you have to accept a lower salary? I'd love to hear from you.


Clair said...

You are so close to the truth its scary. I find that the closer you are to the "bottom" of a company (i.e. lower paid) you can get flexible working and term time etc but if you move up it is almost impossible. I am now doing a job i don't love but I have a chance to spend an extra day with the girls every week but I cannot move, even sideways, within the company without losing that and being forced to accept a "standard" work pattern". AHHHHHHHHHH What to do? And I work for a giant multinational!

Laura C said...

Great post! I'm on maternity leave for 2nd time from my work place. My first maternity leave saw a massive restructure which meant I would have to reapply for my old job when I returned. I decided not to and got to keep my old salary. This time round I have to work around my husband's hours; he earns more and has a better job. My work are quite flexible to a degree and I'm hoping they'll be happy with my hours request! If not I don't know what I'll do. I can't afford childcare, I don't have family within a 100 miles of us and trying to find a well paid part time job is like winning the lottery!

Mwa said...

That's why I'm so glad I'm a teacher now. When I go back to work, at least there will be the option of finding a job to suit me, and mostly in school hours.

smashedpea said...

It's all so 19th century, isn't it? When I was about to go on mat leave the first time around, I approached my union, suggesting I come back into some sort of job sharing arrangement, so I could be home a bit more. They were opposed (!) because it would lead to part-time work without benefits, but wished me luck in talking the employer into this. When I inquired with HR, everybody said "Oh, what a great idea!!!! I'd love to do this too!" - but the higher ups didn't actually go for it. I mean, on a case-by-case basis they'd maybe go for it on a permanent basis (and yes, I'd loose all benefits and job security), but I'd then never be able to come back full-time when the kids are older, unless a job were to open up full-time, no internal (ie full-time permanent) candidate was suitable and I'd win the external competition.

Needless to say, I went back full-time when my mat leave was over. Now we've got two kids, making it even more desirable to only work 3 or so days/week - but my employer is still not ready for this. In fact, people in the other union who have been job sharing have been told as of this semester that it's over, so they are reluctantly back to full-time (one of them quit, but she was close to retirement anyway). Meanwhile our president goes on and on about how we want to become an employer of choice and how people will be approaching us to work here and we won't have to go and recruit people. Good luck with that, Lady!

In my previous life in the non-profit sector, I'm sure this would not have been a problem. It was a very small grass roots organization and the boss was very flexible and progressive - I'm pretty sure had I stayed on, I'd be job sharing now..... And have gone nuts, too, because the other side of flexible is un-organized and chaotic, but that's a whole other story, really....

Let's hope one day soon employers will really get that giving employees what they want (within reason of course), makes such employees much more productive and happy.

Irish Mammy said...

This is so true, I am now back on the job hunt again with 2 young children I can't help but feel I can't go for the 'interesting' jobs anymore as they are not 9 to 5 and require travel abroad. It is just too messy with two young children and no family near by. I would ideally love a part-time job but I don't even have it in my criteria as I know you have to have a job first before you can get a part-time version of it. Why isn't there more job sharing opportunities? So you are right either take a full-time well paid or a part-time lower paid position (where they still expect you to get the 5 days work done in 3 days)

Kelloggsville said...

I do 35 hours and I have to work 5 days but I can leave early one day and work late the next. I can work up hours and take an afternoon off if needed but best of all I can drive to work after school drop off without the fear of 'being late'. This to me is flexible working. Looking for less hours isn't flexible working - it's going part-time. Employers will never wake up to the fact that part-timers often do as much work as a full timer but in less hours. For a while I took a lot of Unpaid leave (the 'if your child is under 5' thing) and I never once had my workload reduced, I just worker harder! The hardest part though is passing up the juicer assignments and training opportunities becuase I can't stay away from home or be 100 miles or more away from my house at 9am - it sucks but it's part of being a working mum.

cartside said...

Kellogsville, so true, I often feel so guilty when yet again I have to leave a training session or meeting earlier because I just have to be back at the childminder at 5.30pm.

And I've positively lost the will to pursue going anywhere on the career ladder. Glass ceiling reached.



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