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Part-time Work is Women’s Response to Unhealthy Conditions

‘We have seen a decreased focus on men as primary breadwinners in recent years. After all, participation of both women and men in the Nordic labour markets is a cornerstone of economic development,’ said Iceland’s gender equality minister Eygló Hardardóttir at the beginning of the conference ‘From Part Time to Full Time?’, which was held in Reykjavik on 12 November.

The minister pointed out though that the labour market remains gender segregated. Women have more household and family responsibility and men work longer days away from home. Equal participation in the labour market is an important factor on the path to gender equality, as is equal sharing of household duties.

Complex interaction between many factors

Nordic women are more likely than men to work part time, which has economic consequences. This was concluded in a report titled Part-Time Work in the Nordic Region, presented by Nordic Information on Gender (NIKK) in Stockholm last year.

The reasons why women are more likely to choose to work part time are discussed in the second part of the report, which was presented at the conference in Reykjavik. It turns out that the pattern is the result of complex interactions between many factors, including health, family and labour market.

A group of experts, politicians, labour market representatives and others participated in the conference. The aim was to learn from each other’s experiences regarding how to deal with the problem, and working groups at the conference discussed which changes are needed in order to reduce the negative effects on gender equality.

Let us broaden the horizons

Work session. Foto: Bosse Parbring
 Work session. Photo: Bosse Parbring

‘Society misses out on women’s valuable education and training when so many of them work part time,’ says Bosse Parbring, administrator of the NIKK project with the same name as the report. Everybody should have the opportunity to work full time. Women and immigrants are in the same situation in this respect and are in a weak position in relation to employers.

Parbring says he is happy with how the conference turned out. Working in small groups gave the participants new perspectives on the problems discussed. He says that the format led to intense discussions, as all participants had expert knowledge and relevant experiences and everybody had something to add to the debate. It is important that experts and labour market parties get together and discuss what can be done to turn the development around.

Part time is not a bad idea

Part-time work can be defined as women’s way to handle unhealthy conditions, say the authors of the report. This includes both the conflict between paid work and family life and health-related factors.

Forskarna Cathrine Egeland och Ida Drange. Foto: Bosse Parbring
 Researchers Cathrine Egeland and Ida Drange. Photo: Bosse Parbring

Norwegian researcher Cathrine Egeland, who wrote the second part of the report together with Ida Drange, says that the uneven representation of women and men in part-time work is nothing new. Just look at their economic independence and pensions. ‘But I believe it would be good to approach the issue from a different angle and address it in a broader context,’ she said in an interview with NIKK. ‘Part-time work is not a bad idea, if men also saw it as an opportunity. In Norway, all labour market parties agree that this is a big problem and fear a shortage of labour in the future. Women are at the same time pressured to work even harder at home, and maybe the real problem lies in this dual message to men and women about how things should be organised.’

Men should work part time

Ingólfur V. Gíslason. Foto: Bosse Parbring
 Ingólfur V. Gíslason. Photo: Bosse Parbring

Ingólfur V. Gislason, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Iceland, agrees with Egeland and says that as long as the majority of part-time workers are women, it is a problem. If the same number of men were in the same situation, it would not be a problem. ‘Women earn less money, and the potential for change in this respect is small as long as this situation remains. The most radical and best way to reduce this problem and at the same time contribute to gender equality in society and the wellbeing of children would be to shorten the workweek for both women and men to about 35 hours,’ he tells NIKK.

Do women have a choice?

The most common reasons why women work part time have to do with their family and private life. However, the share of women who work part time because they cannot find a full-time job is also relatively large, in particular in Iceland and Denmark. There is also a growing group of individuals who say they work part time due to illness.

Drifa Snaedal, general secretary of the Federation of General and Special Workers in Iceland, says there should be a discussion about what full-time work really means. Part-time work is very common in for example healthcare. ‘In some traditionally female-dominated jobs in the public sector, the stress level is so high nobody can work more than 80 per cent of full time, especially if shift work is involved,’ says Snaedal to NIKK. ‘Research also shows that women choose part-time work more often. We need to look closer at this and find out how voluntary this choice is in the cases where women also have to care for children, old people and those with health problems because the welfare system has failed. The unions can’t solve this problem alone, and nor can the employers. The labour market parties and governments have to work together and seriously discuss whether everybody involved may benefit from redefining the workweek.’

Flexibility required

Magnus Lindström from the Swedish employers’ association KFO was also happy with the conference. He has been part of Swedish working group that has looked at the possibilities of creating more full-time jobs in the retail sector. He says that both the employers and employees agree that workers who wish to work full time should be accommodated. ‘The priorities vary, though.

Hvad er de reelle problemer? Foto: Bosse Parbring
 What are the real problems with part-time? Photo: Bosse Parbring

The worker side would like to see solutions involving legislation and collective agreements. The final answer is nowhere in sight. The law says it’s ok to keep shops open 24 hours a day seven days a week. The employers don’t want any changes and would like to keep the system flexible in order to make their scheduling easier. The working group is an attempt to solve the problem, either technically or through collective negotiations without having to change any rules or laws.’

Paternal leave – a step forward

Euygló Hardardóttir pointed out that sometimes progress is not possible without legislative change. ‘The Icelandic law that granted fathers the right to paternal leave was important in this context. Young men’s attitudes have changed. Today it’s cool to be a family man with domestic responsibilities.’

Ingólfur V. Gislason says that when Icelandic men were granted the right to paternal leave in 2000, it affected the struggle for gender equality positively, and today men are more involved in the care of their children. ‘Women return to work sooner after having a baby, and the number of hours of paid work is more equal today than in the past,’ he says. ‘So women are working more and men are working correspondingly less and want to spend more time at home. This is far from enough, however. The leave is too short and the period between the end of parental leave and the beginning of preschool is too long. Women are much more likely than men to bridge this gap.’

Bosse Parbring says that although Iceland has not achieved gender equality in this area, the paternal leave has led to positive change – something that of course is receiving attention in the other Nordic countries.’

Shorter shifts in female-dominated jobs

Work session. Foto: Bosse Parbring
 Work session. Photo: Bosse Parbring

Majbritt Mohr from Faroe Islands’ healthcare association says that the conference was great and that it was interesting to hear about all the things that the Nordic countries have in common. Yet it became very clear during the discussions that the situation is complicated and that there are no easy solutions.

Mohr says that a strong tradition of women working part time has been formed in the Faroe Islands. ‘The men used to be at sea and therefore away from home for extended periods. Although many of them no longer work at sea, some have found work in the Norwegian oil industry in the last five years and have to be gone from their families for long periods,’ she tells NIKK.

‘Twenty per cent of Faroese women would like to work more hours per week than currently possible. The women who are sole breadwinners can’t make ends meet with a part-time salary,’ she says.

‘The employers have to organise the work differently to enable women to work full time. Instead they have moved in the opposite direction by reducing the shifts in healthcare to six hours, rather than making them longer. They could also shorten the workweek, but right now they are instead making it very difficult for women.’

Updated 16 February 2024