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Unequal distribution of part-time work and family responsibilities in the Nordic countries

In the Nordic countries, part-time work is much more common among women than men. This affects both the gender equality in the labour market and the economic opportunities available to women and men. NIKK, Nordic Information on Gender, has compiled the results of three research reports on part-time work into a factsheet reviewing the causes and consequences of part-time work in the Nordic region.

The Nordic countries have higher female employment rates than the EU average, yet part-time work is much more common among women than men, which affects women’s economic independence. The gender difference in number of hours worked per week is an expression of the different conditions women and men face in the labour market and society at large. The unequal distribution of part-time employment is therefore a key aspect in the work to achieve gender equality in the labour market.

About 30 per cent of the women in Norway, Iceland and Sweden work part time. In Denmark, the figure is 35,3 per cent, and in Finland only 20,5 per cent of the women work part time. Finland’s low rate is partly due to part-time jobs being more marginalised and more concentrated to low-skill occupations in that country. Yet there are also some historical explanations. Women’s participation in the labour market rose earlier in Finland, which has influenced the employment rate.

Women in the Faroe Islands and Åland have higher part-time employment rates than women elsewhere in the Nordic region – 49 % and 45.9 %, respectively. These are high rates even when compared with countries in the rest of Europe. In fact, only Switzerland and the Netherlands have higher rates. In Greenland, there is no significant difference in part-time employment rates between women and men. The Greenlandic part-time employment rates vary more between urban and rural areas than between women and men, as those who live in the countryside are more likely to work part time than people in urban areas.

Part-time employment is significantly less common among men in the Nordic countries, although the rate is rising. In all Nordic countries, women with low levels of education are more likely to work part time than women with more education.

Domestic work and care reasons for part-time work

Part-time employment is more common among women for several reasons, including greater family responsibilities, health issues and the organisation of workplaces. Women’s part-time employment is strongly linked to the fact that women tend to carry a heavier load than men when it comes to family and care responsibilities. There are norms and values prescribing that women should experience a conflict between being employed and taking care of their homes and families, which makes them apt to engage less in paid work. Another reason is that a part-time culture has emerged in female-dominated sectors such as child and elderly care in the Nordic countries. This culture leads to an expectation, and acceptance, of part-time employment among women. Foreign-born women and women with low levels of education are particularly likely to work part time involuntarily.

Health problems and disabilities are other reasons women work part time instead of full time. Health problems can in some cases arise from attempts to combine full-time employment with family life, or they can be caused by the way work is often organised in the female-dominated health and care sectors. Research shows that women’s experiences of insufficiency in both the labour market and the family domain are important causes of part-time employment and reduced health.

Finances and pension

Part-time employment affects women’s financial situations both immediately and in the long term. One immediate consequence is less money to spend, and in the longer term the women may end up with flatter salary trajectories and lower pensions.

An extended period of part-time employment may affect a person’s future pension, but the effect differs between the Nordic countries. A comparison shows that the difference in future pension between part-time and full-time work is small in Denmark and Norway. In these countries, having worked full time for most of one’s career has a greater effect on the pension than having worked part-time for a period. In addition, the pension systems in Denmark and Norway compensate people for time they have spent at home raising children. In Denmark, parts of the pension system also compensate people for lower incomes. In Finland, Iceland and Sweden, a woman’s pension is 4–6 per cent lower if she has worked part time for 10 years. In these countries, there is a stronger correlation between pensions and the life-time number of hours worked in life.
To increase the opportunities for women to work full time, there is a need for structural solutions, such as an expansion of child and elderly care services. Experts also say that women’s part-time employment is closely linked to men’s high rates of full-time employment. Focusing only on women’s part-time work will not help solve the underlying problem. Instead, there should be a focus on the distribution of part-time employment and family responsibilities, as well as a discussion for example about a general reduction of work hours for both men and women.

Updated 20 November 2019