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Part-time work and advancement: A study of female professional staff in Australian universities

Part-time work and advancement: A study of female professional staff in Australian universities

17 July 2017, by Janis Bailey, Carolyn Troup and Glenda Strachan

Part-time work is a typical feature of women’s employment, especially in the years when women are raising young children. Historically, most of this part-time work came with severe penalties such as lack of career progression. Since the late 1980s and the introduction of specific legislation to promote employment equity for women (currently the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012), part-time work has been seen as a strategy that organisations can use to retain their staff and keep them on a career track. The ultimate goal is that there is no disadvantage of a period of part-time work over the period of a working career. Has this happened?

Is there such a thing as ‘good’ part-time work? This study asked the questions

1. Does a period of part-time work act as a significant ‘brake’ on professional women’s career advancement in the Australian university sector?

2. Are part-time work opportunities equally accessible, irrespective of job level classification?

Professional staff in universities do a wide range of jobs and are the majority (56 per cent) of university employees, are female-dominated, and highly educated with 97 per cent holding a university degree. Yet, as found in most industries, there is vertical segregation by gender, that is women are less likely than men to reach the senior levels.

Most universities have a policy which allows staff to move from full-time work to part-time work and to revert back to a full-time position, although the ease of ‘reversibility’ (from and to full-time work) varies between universities and staff who commence on a part-time basis are not covered usually by these arrangements.

This study uses data from the Work and Careers in Australian Universities (WCAU) Survey, a component of the Australian Research Council Linkage Grant project ‘Gender and Employment Equity: Strategies for Advancement in Australian Universities, 2009–2012’ (Strachan et al 2012 & 2016). This survey was conducted at 19 of 37 Australian universities in 2011 and the sample used here comprised the 6948 ongoing and fixed-term professional women who provided information on key questions. We, therefore, have large numbers of women and the levels they have achieved over time. The number of women were divided into four ‘groups’:

  • had worked only part-time (Group 1);
  • working part-time at the time of the survey, but had earlier worked full-time (Group 2);
  • working full-time at the time of the survey, but had earlier worked part-time (Group 3); and
  • had worked only full-time (Group 4).

The findings revealed that the opportunity to work part-time is not utilised equally by women at different points on the career ladder. Women’s uptake of part-time work declines markedly at higher levels, a finding which confirms other research. It suggests that not only does a period of part-time work somewhat erode women’s career advancement, but that women with high career aspirations actively self-select out of part-time work.

Women who had worked part-time suffered a small but observable career disadvantage (after controlling for work experience and educational qualifications). Full-time only workers were the most advanced, and part-time only workers the least likely to have advanced. On the positive side, women rarely regressed when they took up part-time work. However, periods of part-time work acted as a brake on career advancement.

Women’s aspirations for higher appointment varied only slightly between the groups, which suggests that motivation for career progression does not influence the lower progression of those working part-time.

Overall, apart from the smallish negative effect of part-time work on advancement, women in the university sector maintain job quality and employability more so than women working part-time in other sectors.

Part-time work still has contradictory meanings for women. On the positive side, women can use part-time work to enable the continuation of their careers while fulfilling other responsibilities outside the employment sphere. On the negative side, it can impede women’s career progression.
Australian university workplaces have well-thought-out part-time work policies compared to most industry sectors. While these policies are not perfect, they have enabled women in this sector to suffer less detriment from periods of part-time work. Effective part-time work policies and practices improve the use of human capital, achieve equity in the workplace and beyond, and retain staff within organisations.

The key seems to be combining full- and part-time work as part of career-planning and work-life balance strategies. For women who start in a part-time appointment, moving to full-time work generally requires them to apply for an advertised vacancy, however, and most positions are generally full-time.

Implications for policy and practice

The findings from this research are applicable to other industries, as the types of work done by professional staff in universities encompasses a range of administration jobs and professional specialties commonly found in other large organisations found in, for example, banking, health, education and government administration.

1. Organisations should implement policies which allow movement from full-time to part-time positions, and reversion to full-time, are extremely beneficial as the organisation retains female employees and allows for career progression.

2. Policies and practices need to stress equal availability of part-time work at all classification levels with sustained efforts over time to reinforce this message. Organisations need to work with supervisors to ensure that staff do not feel subtle pressures to work full-time or experience real (or perceived) negative effects on their careers if they do work part-time.

3. Universities need to make all suitable job openings available to part-time employees.

4. Employees who commence work in a part-time position fall outside the provisions which allow full-time workers to transition to part-time and revert to full-time. The only way those on an initial part-time appointment can move to full-time work is through a successful application for a position which is advertised as full-time. This group has the poorest outcomes in career advancement. Therefore, policies which provide some form of transition to full-time positions should be extended to cover this group who currently fall outside university policies.

Associate Professor Janis Bailey works at the Department of Employment Relations and Human Resources, and Centre for Work, Organisation and Well-being, Griffith Business School (Gold Coast Campus), Griffith University (Adjunct), Gold Coast, Australia

Dr Carolyn Troup works at the Centre for Work, Organisation and Well-being, Griffith University (Nathan Campus), Brisbane, Australia

Professor Glenda Strachan works at the Department of Employment Relations and Human Resources, and Centre for Work, Organisation and Well-being, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia 

Bailey, J., Troup, C., & Strachan, G (2017). Part-time work and advancement: a study of female professional staff in Australian universities

Strachan, G., Peetz, D., Whitehouse, G., Bailey, J. Broadbent, K., May, R., Troup, C. & Nesic, M. (2016). Women, careers and universities: Where to from here? Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing, Griffith University, Brisbane.

Strachan, G., Troup, C., Peetz, D., Whitehouse, G., Broadbent, K., & Bailey, J. (2012). Work and careers in Australian universities: Report on employee survey. Brisbane: Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing, Griffith University.

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