Lack of flexible working options is distorting the job market for women

flexible working womanUK employers and their female employees are missing out on a range of opportunities because of their failure to implement better flexible working arrangements, according to a report from The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). The report examined flexible working across Europe and found that while significant progress had been made in the UK, nearly two thirds (64 percent) of working women are unable to vary their working hours and a quarter (25 percent) claim it is difficult to take one or two hours from their day at short notice. The report claims the pent up demand for such working arrangements restricts employment opportunities for women compared to men, means more women are working in jobs below their skill level and creates the conditions for extensive underemployment.

According to the report, on average across the 28 EU member states, the gap between male and female employment rates stood at 11.7 percentage points in 2013, and the female employment rate remained steady at around 62.5 per cent between 2008 and 2013. It claims that ‘the interplay of structural dynamics within economies and firms, government actions and regulation, and cultural developments have over time changed the nature of households and the supply of labour, and resulted in three undesirable employment outcomes for women.

  • Low rates of female employment, which effects economic output.
  • A high prevalence of women working below their ‘qualification grade’, which might have effects in terms of a sub-optimal allocation of skills across an economy.
  • Underemployment in terms of hours – particularly a persistent yet variable gap in working hours between men and women across typical life phases, which raises issues of productivity, staff retention and recruitment costs at the level of the firm.

The report concludes that the adoption of more and better flexible working initiatives will improve job opportunities in the following ways:

  • Across countries, both part-time work and increased employee control over the scheduling of working hours can be associated with an increased female employment rate.
  • The concentration of part-time work outside of high-level jobs may increase the tendency for women to work in occupations below their skill level.
  • The prevalence of part-time work as the main flexible working option may be contributing to two problems: unnecessarily low average working hours among mothers during the early stages of parenthood, and mothers’ average working hours remaining low during subsequent life-phases.
  • There is considerable demand for a larger range of flexible working options among working women. Our research suggests that giving employees more control over the scheduling of their working hours would be particularly popular.

The report is the first in a series of work supported by the global JPMorgan Chase New Skills at Work initiative. The European component of the programme was announced in April 2014 alongside IPPR as lead research partner.

The report claims that the UK has a particular problem with a lack of part-time work for highly qualified female workers coupled with a working culture for many of those in full time employment that encourages them to switch to part time jobs that are below their skill level.

The report’s research found that the UK continues to lag behind other European countries when it comes to the numbers of women who have the autonomy to adapt their working hours to suit their personal needs and preferences. Around a fifth (19 percent) of working women in the UK are able to adapt their hours, compared to women working in Sweden (41 per cent) and the Netherlands (38 per cent).