Going Part Time Can Be A Cruel Trap For Women, But There's A Way To Do It Right

Before you go part time, consider doing what some men do.
Part-time workers are seen as less ideal worker by employers.
Deagreez via Getty Images
Part-time workers are seen as less ideal worker by employers.

For working mothers, part-time work is often presented as a win-win solution: They get to stay on track in their careers and they have more time to help raise their children.

But the reality can be far less than ideal, as former first lady Michelle Obama pointed out in her 2018 memoir, “Becoming.” Several months after her daughter Malia was born, Obama negotiated to go half-time at her job at the University of Chicago, so that she could be “both career woman and perfect mother, striking the Mary Tyler Moore/Marian Robinson balance I’d always hoped for.” She had a babysitter at home, a “half-time” designation, but she soon found the arrangement to be a “something of a trap”:

“At work, I was still attending all the meetings I always had while also grappling with most of the same responsibilities. The only real difference was that I now made half my original salary and was trying to cram everything into a twenty-hour week. If a meeting ran late, I’d end up tearing home at breakneck speed to fetch Malia so that we could arrive on time (Malia eager and happy, me sweaty and hyperventilating) to the afternoon Wiggleworms class at a music studio on the North Side. To me, it felt like a sanity-warping double bind. I battled guilt when I had to take work calls at home. I battled a different sort of guilt when I sat at my office distracted by the idea that Malia might be allergic to peanuts. Part-time work was meant to give me more freedom, but mostly it left me feeling as if I were only half doing everything, that all the lines in my life had been blurred.”

Obama was encountering what’s known as “schedule creep.”

Joan Williams, a law professor who is founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, defined schedule creep as a job situation in which “Employers allow someone to go part time, but they don’t change the job expectations. So when that happens, hours typically creep back up towards full-time.”

Going part time should ideally mean fewer hours for proportional pay. But many women find themselves cramming more work in fewer hours of allotted time. That’s what author Laura Vanderkam found researching her book, “I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make The Most Of Their Time,” for which more than 100 women who earned six figures and had children logged 1,001 days of their schedule in time diaries.

“I would see women who were on part-time schedules working just as many hours as somebody else in the same industry on a full-time schedule,” Vanderkam said. “In at least one case, I saw a woman on a part-time schedule working more hours than a colleague on a full-time schedule.”

Part-time work is valid, but it is not viewed as valid by employers and colleagues who equate hours worked with accomplishment.

“Very, very often work is a masculinity concept where the metric is how big your schedule is,” Williams said. She co-edited a 2013 series of studies on the flexibility stigma workers face that were published in the Journal of Social Issues. Among the findings were that some women reported leaving the workforce after working fewer hours because they lost meaningful responsibilities at work, and that low-income working moms negotiating for flextime at work faced being seen as disorganized, unreliable, and personally irresponsible mothers who “had children they can’t take care of.“

When women go part time, they encounter more scrutiny about their ability to get the job done. Williams said they can also face a prove-it-again bias. “One woman told me that before she went part time, when she didn’t get something right or couldn’t deliver something, people assumed that it was because it was objectively hard, but after she went part time they attributed it to her part-time schedule,” she said. “Which means you have to literally, of course, do more work and better work after you go part time than you did while you were full-time in order to be seen as equally competent.”

It’s a stigma that shapes men’s careers, too. Men and women equally valued work flexibility in one of the studies, but men were reluctant to seek it because of well-founded fears of being sidelined. The men who did take leave after the birth of a child were more likely to get lower job evaluations recommending smaller raises.

Before You Go Part Time, Consider Doing What Men Do

First, figure out if a part-time schedule is the right fit. Vanderkam cautioned that workers should find out what full-time work means at the company before deciding if part-time work is the right move. Here’s food for thought: People who say they are slammed with work may actually be tending to their own personal commitments under the radar. “Don’t think your colleagues are working as many hours as they are,” she said. “Be sure you know what the denominator is before you decide to cut the numerator in terms of compensation.”

One 2015 study found some male employees were pretending to work 80-hour weeks while they actually worked in the 50-60-hour range, all so that they could be seen as star employees in a firm that valued long hours. Management researcher Erin Reid found that men in a major consulting firm would inflate hours they worked while they slipped away to go skiing or spend time with their families. They did not call attention to their absences, but instead built alliances with colleagues to cover for them or by getting local clients. Meanwhile, the men and women at the firm who sought formal part-time accommodations saw their work marginalized as they were passed over for opportunities.

The lesson is not to outright lie to your colleagues, but to try doing your work on your own schedule if you have that autonomy and if your physical absence will not stand out.

“You can just leave and see what happens. Maybe somebody will call you on it, but maybe not. Everyone’s wrapped in their own world,” Vanderkam said. “We can recognize that many men are carving out the lives they want to by just doing it, and sometimes it’s good to have a similar mindset.”

How To Make A Part-Time Schedule Actually Successful

If you are one of the women who formalizes going part-time with your team, it can be better than having a significant yearslong career gap. Here are tips for making your situation work:

Set expectations about workload from the start. You want to make sure your flexibility request works around the needs of your team. You also want to make sure you don’t set yourself up to fail by taking on more than what you are being compensated for. “Make sure that you do not expect a flexible work arrangement that’s going to require you to do the full-time job in part-time hours, because that’s just a self-exploitation model,” Williams said.

Get days off. “If you’re gonna work part-time, get days off, like say, ‘I will not work on Fridays then,’’’ Vanderkam said. “Then, as much as possible, you need to stick with it because otherwise you’re going to get taken advantage of.”

Show up when you need to, so it won’t be as noticeable when you’re not there. “Think analytically about what are the times of day and year, and what is the context in which it’s really going to be salient if they’re not there,” Williams said. “And show up at those times. And design the schedule accordingly.”

Track your hours. With this data, you can make sure that your time at work “is staying in a range that you find acceptable,” Vanderkam said. “This is something you should evaluate frequently, certainly every year or so with your manager.”

You also don’t need to see your part-time decision as a permanent sentence. “If there is any creep, then you need to go say, ‘Well actually, I would like to be back up to 100% because I’ve determined that I’m actually working more than 40 hours a week,’” Vanderkam said.

Embrace flexibility. Seek support if it is available. There has to be a give and take in your home and work life for your professional career to thrive, so that as deadlines and childcare responsibilities increase, you know you can ride the wave.

“If you are not going to have any childcare, and must pick your kids every single day at 3 p.m. without fail, and are never going to ask your partner to step in, that is pretty much a recipe for marginalization in a broad range of professional jobs,” Williams said.

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