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“Part time is about money, culture and morals”

“Part time is about money, culture and morals”

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

There is an intensive debate on part time work in all of the Nordic countries. But this goes further than women choosing to work part time for certain periods. If gender equality is the goal, should women take on more full time work or should men work more part time?

There were frank exchanges at the conference hosted by the Nordic Council of Ministers and NIKK (Nordic Information on Gender) in Stockholm on 22 October. Straight after Marianne Sundström’s presentation of a study showing the consequences needn’t be too grave for women who choose to work part time for parts of their lives, Maria Hemström Hemmingsson from the Delegation for Gender Equality in Working Life concluded the opposite.

Women only get 65 procent

“The terrain doesn’t fit with the map,” she said and referred to statistics showing Swedish women only get 65 percent of the pension men get. 

“It’s because women work for free seven weeks a year at home, they take two out of three days off to care for a sick child and 76 percent of paid parental leave. This means their wage increase is slower and they earn on average 3.6 million kronor (€410,000) less than men during their lifetime,” said Maria Hemström Hemmingson.

Women’s employment rate is lower than men’s – 77 percent compared to 83 percent – and 34 percent of women work part time compared to 10 percent of men. This means a major socio-economic loss.

“If women worked as much as men, Sweden’s GDP would grow by 10 percent or 353 billion kronor (€40.2bn),” Maria Hemström Hemmingsson pointed out.

It’s about money, culture and morals

Cathrine Egeland from Norway’s Work Research Institute was next on the list of speakers. She is one of the researchers who has been tasked with finding the reasons why women work part time (and men work full time). The results will be presented next year, but based on the interviews Cathrine Egeland has given together with colleague Ida Drange in a different, yet to be published research project, it is about money, culture and morals.

“We focus far too much on involuntary working hours, while feeling guilty about voluntary part time work. Voluntary part time work run against the expectations of the Nordic welfare model and the political equality project, and that is why we’re uncomfortable with it,” said Cathrine Egeland.

Women — and families — don’t do what they do because of a lack of knowledge:

“People are fully aware of the consequences when they decide. But for many couples — especially when the man is well paid — it is still a decision which the women feel they can justify both culturally and morally,” said Cathrine Egeland.

Being a mother used as an excuse

She used the leader of Norway’s Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), Gerd Kristiansen, as an example of society’s negative attitude to part time work. Kristiansen had said in an interview that women “use their role as a mother as an excuse to be the one who takes on the main responsibility for the children at home.”

According to the LO boss you must be prepared to sacrifice something when you work full time. A normal Norwegian working week is 37.5 hours. “That is just a little bit more than a night and a day.” All in all people therefore have a lot of time with their children, according to the Norwegian LO boss. 

“But women choose part time work for other reasons than hours and time. This is about making what they feel to be a morally justified and culturally legitimate choice when weighing up working life and life in general.”

Workplace culture

Tapio Bergholm, senior researcher at The Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions, pointed out that male-heavy trade unions, like Transport, have fought against part time employment more efficiently than more female dominated unions like those representing the retail and hotel sectors — despite the great pressure to only offer morning and evening shifts to suit the demands within the transport sector.

Signe Frieberg Nielsen, chief negotiator with the employers’ organisation Danish Regions, provided examples of how certain workplaces develop a kind of part time culture.

“Historically nurses married to doctors and working hours were adapted to fit in with that. It just became the way things were. But young female doctors don’t work part time, neither do female engineers or police,” she said.

“We have to ask for how long can we afford to train three nurses in order to fill two full time posts?”

Is part time voluntary?

One of the conference’s other debates highlighted Cathrine Egeland’s example of the negative attitude to part time work:

“I would seriously question whether ‘voluntary’ part time work really is voluntary,” said Jørgen Arbo-Bæhr, MP and chairman for Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance.

Sweden’s Minister for Gender Equality Maria Arnholm, was also not convinced by the report which concluded that the consequences for women working part time were not all that grave.  

“Limited part time work during a limited period of time in you life also has limited consequences,” she said.

“But in real life there is massive inequality in pensionable pay which we definitely cannot ignore,” said Maria Arnholm.


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