Working Part-Time: A great option for working moms—but does your company have your back?

I’ve worked part time for the past 15 years, and I think for many women a part-time schedule is a great option. It allows them to balance earning money vs taking care of their kids and their home. It also allows them to participate in the world outside of the home – something I believe is incredibly important if women are going to achieve equality in government, in business, and in the world in general.

Working part time can be a tough road, though. Pay, career advancement, and attitudes towards part-time employees can all suffer. Research in the UK found that someone working part-time has only a 21% of being promoted after 3 years (compared with 45% of full-time employees). Another study shows that part-time employees believe that their part-time job is a step down from their last full-time job, and that they are overqualified for the job they are doing.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 11% of working parents are moms who are working part-time (2% are dads working part-time). This is a significant percent of working parents, and I’d argue that even more parents might choose part-time schedules if companies fully supported this option. Because the majority of part-time employees are women, companies who want to retain women and eventually move them into leadership roles should work hard to fully support part-time employees (this will help part-time dads too!).

What Companies Can Do

Here are the things companies should do to fully support part-time employees:

  • Allow part-time employees to continue to grow their careers and get promotions.
  • Make sure they evaluate a part-time employee’s performance on the quality of their work, recognizing that they will undoubtedly produce less than their full-time peers. Half of part-time employees say they are not as valued as their full-time counterparts.
  • Give part-time employees the same benefits as full-time employees. Part-time employees are about half as likely as full-time employees to receive benefits such as retirement, health insurance, sick leave, and vacation. This is a huge barrier for many parents who might want to work part-time but can’t afford to give up their insurance or retirement savings.
  • Have an open mind about what work can be done on a part-time schedule – even consider allowing part-time employees to be managers, or handle large or critical projects. Be open to discussions about job sharing, or redefining responsibilities in a way that allows for both a part-time schedule and career growth.
  • Allow part-time employees to transfer to a new job within the company while still keeping their part-time schedule. This study shows that 77% of part-time employees feel trapped in their current job because of the small number of part-time positions available.
  • Work closely with their employee to identify a flexible part-time schedule that will work well for everyone involved.

This last one is a critical point if businesses are really going to support working moms. Working moms are 5 times more likely than working dads to either be single parents, or have a spouse who works full time. Working dads are much more likely to have a wife at home (at least part-time), and therefore won’t need as much support from their place of work once they become parents. Employers need to recognize that they cannot rely on their experience managing dads as a guide for how to successfully manage moms. Many businesses make the assumption that working moms are no different than working dads — maybe even intentionally trying to treat them equally for good reasons!  But the reality is that home life for working moms is just not the same for working dads (unless they are one of the lucky 8% who have a husband at home), and businesses that truly want to support women need to acknowledge and address this.

Working moms may need to arrange their work around daycare hours, or around their spouse’s working hours. Moms of infants might need to be home more during the day but can fill in work time during naps, in the evenings when their spouse is home, or on weekends. Alternatively, parents of school-age children may want to work 9AM-3PM during school hours, but choose to be focused on kids from 3PM-8PM and get back on email later in the evening.

There are many different ways a mom working part-time may want to arrange her schedule, depending on a lot of different different things:

  • Is she married?
  • Does her husband work, and on what schedule?
  • Does she have extended family nearby to help, or is she using a daycare, or a nanny?
  • Whatever her childcare solution is, what are their hours and limitations?
  • In addition to childcare, does she have help with shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, errands, doctor’s appointments, carpools, and all the other work that increases significantly with each child? (see a full list)
  • What kind of work is she doing, and what are the restrictions/requirements of that kind of work?
  • How old are her kids?

There will not be a one size fits all solution, and businesses need to engage with moms in this nitty gritty to help them figure out what’s best for her and for the company and find some equilibrium.

My Experience Working Part-Time At Microsoft

This topic is especially important to me because this is the kind of support I wish I’d received from Microsoft after my first son was born. I did switch to a part-time schedule for about 6 months, and I’m very thankful that Microsoft allowed for part-time employees. In retrospect, though, Microsoft’s support for my part-time schedule was only surface-level support, and I ran into many of the barriers that research shows are common for part-time employees.

When I switched to part-time, I worked hard to do it in a way that would minimize the impact on my job.  I asked for an 80% schedule (the equivalent of 4 days/week), but I arranged it so that I was still in the office 5 days/week, trading off with my husband 2 half days each week.  My husband also switched to an 80% schedule so I would have the necessary support at home. Additionally, I committed to checking email on my 2 half days off, and in the evenings and on weekends.

Despite my efforts to have minimal impact on Microsoft so I could continue doing the same job I had been doing, the following things happened:

  • My manager said that I couldn’t continue to manage employees on a part-time schedule (I was in a leadership role managing a multi-level team of 20 people at the time). I suggested a job share with one of my employees (the man who ended up replacing me), or re-assigning only part of my team to him, but in the end this employee was promoted, and all of my employees were re-assigned to him. I returned to an individual contributor role with no direct reports.
  • The project I had been managing was also transferred to this other person. It was a large project and my managers didn’t think it could be managed on a part-time schedule. I was instead given some smaller, complementary side projects.
  • Upper management signaled that I would not be eligible for a promotion until I returned to a full-time schedule. When a position above my level opened up, I was told I would be considered for that level of job when I “came back”. Since I was in the office 5 days/week, I took this to mean I would be eligible only when I was working full time again.
  • My performance reviews suffered as a direct result of my part-time schedule. When I asked if my work had deteriorated since I’d gone part-time, I was assured it hadn’t, I was just producing less and working on less critical projects than my peers, and therefore the higher review scores went to my full-time peers who were producing more (at the time, review scores were distributed on a bell curve).

Microsoft was allowing me to tread water until I could return to a full-time schedule, but that was all. They were not invested in truly helping me balance work and home in a way that let me continue to advance my career.

After leaving Microsoft, I started two successful businesses on a part-time schedule. Both businesses are still operating today, and both are making money (though I sold my share of one of them to my business partner a few years ago). One business is an office space rental business that focuses on renting office space to people working part-time, and the other is The Trip Clip where I offer tools that help parents make picture checklists and travel activities for their kids.  The fact that I’ve been able to start two businesses from scratch while still taking care of my kids tells me that a part-time employee can accomplish quite a lot with the right arrangement, and companies would be wise to tap into this option with their employees.

Things Are Changing, But There’s More To Do

I recognize that this is just one person’s story at one company, and it was a long time ago. Microsoft has since made a lot of progress on improving their support of working moms. I know other moms who have worked part-time at Microsoft more recently who have had more success with it than I did. Forbes also named Microsoft one of 6 top companies for supporting working moms, for things like offering paid time off, supporting work-life balance, offering flexible work schedules and daycare, and publicizing a gender pay gap analysis.

These are great first steps, but we need to do more in all our workplaces. Microsoft acknowledges their role in this, reporting that when it comes to diversity, they are ‘closer to the beginning of the journey than the end’. The latest numbers indicate 30% of Microsoft employees are female, and only 20% of leadership roles are held by women. One way companies like Microsoft can keep more women in leadership roles will be to change how they support women when they become moms, and to offer more truly flexible working arrangements.

Part-time employees need benefits, career growth, the ability to change jobs, and a company that will work with them to create a flexible schedule that fits their personal family situation. Until companies can offer this, we are going to continue to see women leaving the workforce once they have kids.

Working part-time can be a great option for moms as well as for companies who want to retain women. But first, we’ll need to make some changes in how part-time employees are treated.

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