Crossing cultures: flexibility and drug habits
I’ve argued several times in this blog for more attention to part-time work as the key to women being able to work to their level of competence (and men too…). A report on Women and Flexible Working from the ippr (published,a tad puzzlingly, on Boxing Day) compares practices across 7 EU countries.
The basic premiss is clear: better practice on enabling women to work flexibly will be good for the economy, as well as for them personally. Sweden, Netherlands and Germany are the leaders on both female employment levels and flexible working. The first two show particularly strong levels of employee choice over working time, with around 40% of women able to adapt their hours, within limits – more than double the level for the UK.
But the picture is not straightforward, because practices and preferences are mixed up in different cultural contexts. Poland, for example, has very low levels of flexible working, and especially of part-time work. Only 57% of Polish women work – well below the EU average – and only 11% of these work part-time. Polish women, if they want to work, more or less have to do so full-time. Yet Polish women express high levels of satisfaction with their working hours. Preferences are shaped by what is available. As the report says, moving to higher levels of female employment requires cultural changes beyond employment.
There are also significant differences between the two ‘market leaders’. The Netherlands has very high levels of part-time employment, whereas Swedish women tend to work full-time. It’s interesting that far more Swedish women would like to work fewer hours – 44%, compared with 25% in the UK and 18% in the Netherlands – and only 38% say they are happy with their hours, compared with 62% and 59%.
So there’s no magic solution. The report focusses on working mothers, but rightly acknowledges that we need to look at this issue across the whole life course. Preferences for different time schedules will vary according to age and stage, as well as being a matter of tradition and culture. But we can be pretty sure that increasing choice over working schedules is a positive way forward. The key point from the PP point of view is that greater worktime choice. over the life course, is I think an essential condition for better matching of people’s competences to work opportunities. The ippr report is a useful further bit of the jigsaw.
Cultural variance also leapt out from a report in the Financial Times a week or so ago. This was headed ‘Gender, class and education prove no barrier to Iran’s growing drug problem’. It pointed out that women now account for over 60% of Iran’s graduates. But these well educated young women find very little outlet for their competences, so they turn to drugs, with a doubling of female addicts since 2007: a powerful and sad instance of the effects of the Paula Principle.