The Blog

Flexible Working Still Isn't Flexible Enough

Flexible working in its current form, where many women are expected to work fewer hours than men in all phases of their life time, simply isn't flexible enough for anyone.

This month's labour market statistics have shown another strong performance in the headline job figures, with the overall rate up 0.7 percentage points from a year earlier. For women, the figures are even stronger, up 0.9 percentage points on the 2nd quarter of 2014.

But with GDP growth slowing, the implications of strong employment figures for productivity should be a cause of concern for the Chancellor, George Osborne, in advance of the official productivity numbers being released at the beginning of next month.

Underneath these headline figures, growth in female part-time employment also remained strong, with a net increase of over 50 thousand on the year. There is strong evidence that increased opportunities to work part-time do boost employment rates, particularly for women with children. However, given that part-time work is concentrated in lower skilled sectors of the economy, there are also good reasons to be concerned that this trend can lock women into lower pay and lower productivity.

Recent work by IPPR has shown how rigidity in the labour market - such as in terms of standardised weekly hours and inflexible start and finish times - serves to disproportionately exclude mothers from finding employment that matches their skill level. In the same report, our life course analysis of maternal employment across seven EU countries has also shown a clear gender deficit in average working hours, which widens during women's child bearing years and after which never fully recovers.

Where part-time work is the predominant flexible working option, many mothers are presented with the choice of either working reduced hours, or else dropping out of the labour market altogether. Yet the demand for more varied forms of flexibility remains strong. Our work has shown that over a third of women employed in the UK would like a change in their hours, and one in eight would like to see an increase. More recently, research outlined in the Timewise flexible job index (published last week) has estimated that almost half of the entire UK work force would welcome greater flexibility in terms of either location or hours.

Despite this, the UK actually has working schedules that are among the most rigid in Northern Europe. Only 30 per cent of employed women are afforded any autonomy over their hours, compared to well over 50 per cent of in Sweden and the Netherlands. Furthermore, the majority of flexible work arrangements in the UK are negotiated with existing employees and are not advertised during the recruitment phase, which can mean women (in particular) are unable to move jobs and progress their careers without sacrificing flexibility.

This failure to accommodate a-typical working arrangements (outside of a few professional sectors) not only represents a loss in opportunity for individual workers, but also leads to a significant loss to the economy.

Previous IPPR modelling has found that even without accounting for the fact that an increase in hours may be associated with someone moving into higher-level (and subsequently higher-paid) occupation types, the net fiscal gain of a five-percentage-point increase in the proportion of working mothers (with children under five) employed on a full-time basis (ie representing a shift from part- to full-time hours) could be £700 million per year in the UK. Making full-time working more flexible, and therefore more compatible with caring responsibilities, will be key to realising this potential .

To see these benefits, we need to see a cultural shift in the way that employers respond to changing family dynamics and the new expectations that they bring from both male and female employees (and prospective employees).

In this regard, there is much that can be learned from other European countries. In Germany, the Familienpflegezeit programme allows both male and female employees to take fixed, temporary periods of part-time work in order to care for dependents. In Sweden, employers in certain sectors afford their workers far greater autonomy in scheduling their hours.

It is possible to provide the flexibility that employees require without locking women into permanently low hours in lower skill jobs. Creative schemes, such as Familienpflegezeit, can mitigate against the long-term adverse affects on careers, while also giving assurance and stability to employers. This would lead to more satisfied employees, better job matching for employers, and ultimately higher productivity in the economy.

Flexible working in its current form, where many women are expected to work fewer hours than men in all phases of their life time, simply isn't flexible enough for anyone.