Discrimination against part-timers: a slightly unfair example

“The flexibility of Britain’s labour market makes stagnation slightly more tolerable in the short-term than in countries where rigid labour markets have contributed to high unemployment. Yet there is a price to pay, as many jobs are part-time or temporary; when you take account of inflation, wages overall are declining.”
Thus Pier Carlo Padoan, chief economist of OECD, writing in this month’s Prospect magazine. Nothing remarkable there, you might say.

Padoan goes on: “If economic weakness lingers, there is a risk of further polarisation between full-time employees and those in part-time, insecure, often low-paid work.” Again, the statement is in one sense unremarkable – except for the important warning from one of the world’s major thinktanks about the dire consequences of the government’s current economic policy.

The statements are descriptively correct. That is, part-timers earn less than full-timers, and are often to be found amongst those who have unfavourable employment conditions. The problem I have is that there is a lumping together of ‘part-time’, which is in principle a purely descriptive term referring only to the volume of work carried out, with ‘low-paid’ and ‘insecure’ – terms which give that work a negative connotation. The association is almost automatic.

Now imagine that we added in ‘female’ to the list. It would, I recognise, somewhat reduce the accuracy of the statement, since the recession has propelled men as well as women into the precarious end on the labour market. But it would not be unreasonable, since it is still women who occupy most of the part-time jobs – and yet it might make some of us a little uneasy. Labelling jobs ‘male’ and ‘female’, and linking this directly to opposite ends of a polarising labour market, reinforces the view that there is some kind of inevitability about the connection.

The automatic linkage makes it all the more difficult to build up impetus behind the notion that part-time work can be as good as full-time work: as well-paid and as much part of meaningful career progression. As regular readers of this blog will know, I think turning round the assumptions about part-time work is the single most important route to a better and fairer use of women’s competences.

I’m being unfair in singling out Padoan, especially since I agree with his analysis (and as an ex-OECD employee I have a residual loyalty to the institution). Many others, including me, have made similar statements linking part-time with poor quality. But just maybe it’s time we stopped doing this, or at least stopped implying that it is such an automatic association.

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