Publications - Balancing Work and Family Life - Chapter 4

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Chapter 4 - How Much Working is Flexible?

4.1 Data shortcomings

"Statistics are used to raise consciousness and provide an impetus for change, to provide a foundation for policies, programmes and projects and to monitor and evaluate such policies and measures" (Hedman et al 1996, p.9). Effectively, what is counted counts. Regrettably, there are real problems when attempting to quantify satisfactorily the extent of family friendly/flexible working arrangements at international and national levels, due to limitations in the available data. These shortcomings in the availability of reliable and authoritative statistics greatly limit the extent to which a comprehensive picture may be obtained of the extent and character of these arrangements. Such shortcomings have significant implications for the informed development of family-friendly policies and strategies.

Statistical systems at present are outdated in their approach to the more diverse forms of working arrangements that characterise the modern labour market. Simply recording a job, regardless of the hours worked, is not only potentially misleading in its presentation of labour market trends, it also can render invisible the particular roles played by staff working less than full-time, many of whom are female and trying to juggle work and family commitments. As the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) makes clear, it is vitally important for governments to "use more gender-sensitive data in the formulation of policy and implementation of programmes and projects".

At present, the significant gaps in official statistics, and the limited availability of administrative statistics on flexible working arrangements, mean that reference also needs to be made to reliable data gathered from independent research surveys (see Humphreys, Drew and Murphy 1999). Inevitably, however, statistical comparisons across individual survey results have to be undertaken with care.

4.2 Flexible working arrangements in a European context

Despite the limitations and shortcomings of existing statistical data sources, it is still important for the later in-depth discussion of family friendly working arrangements that as clear an understanding as possible is gained of their quantitative extent and character. At the EU-level, in addition to important associated issues (e.g. gender and age-differentiated participation rates), relevant statistics are available on full- and part-time employment, hours of work and permanent/temporary employment for the labour market as a whole1.

Table One: Persons in Full-time/Part-time Employment by Economic Sector

Table 1, Persons in full time/part time employment by economic sector

Source: Eurostat LFS 1997, Table 052

As Table One indicates, the vast majority (83 per cent) of those in employment throughout the European Union work full-time, with the proportion being highest in the agricultural and industrial sectors. Conversely, if the proportion of those in employment working part-time is used as an indicator of a degree of employment flexibility, then service industries offer the greatest deviation from the full-time norm. However, it is important to note that, compared to the EU average, nearly 88 per cent of Ireland's employment is full-time. Although lower than Italy and Finland, this proportion is substantially higher than that in the Netherlands and UK. In fact, full-time employment in Ireland is higher than the EU average in all three major industrial sectors. In contrast, part-time employment in the services-sector was significantly lower in Ireland (17 percent) than in either the Netherlands (42 percent) or UK (32 per cent).

Although still not providing the majority of employment in any EU Member State or in any major sector of economic activity, part-time employment is not only significant in the services sector, it is also a working arrangement overwhelmingly undertaken by women. In the EU as a whole, part-time working accounts for only 6 percent of male employment but 33.3 per cent of female employment, with the comparative proportions for Ireland being almost identical (see Table One). While in Ireland women are four times more likely to work part-time than men, it is also important to note that, together with Finland and Italy, Ireland has a very high proportion of its females in employment working full-time. The proportion of women working full-time in Ireland (77 percent) is markedly higher than the EU average (68 percent).

In terms of understanding the potential future demand for such work, it is also important to note that there are marked gender differences in the stated reasons for working part-time (see Table Two). In the EU generally, as well as Ireland specifically, most men work part-time because they do not want a full-time job are unable to find full-time work or are undertaking school education/training. In the EU and Ireland, most women state that they are working part-time because they do not wish to have a full-time job or for other reasons, e.g. because of difficulties balancing work and family responsibilities. The gendered nature of part-time working is therefore closely associated with the unequal division of caring responsibilities between the sexes.

Table Two: Part-time Working by Reason

Table 2, Part time working by Reason

Eurostat LFS 1997, Extract from Table 059

In addition, similar gender differences are reported with regard to the reasons for working in a temporary job (see Table Three). Most men are working on a temporary basis because they have been unable to find a permanent job. However, a comparatively high proportion of women in Ireland (32 per cent) is working on a temporary basis because they do not wish to have a permanent job. This proportion is three times the EU average (10 per cent) and again is likely to be indicative, in part at least, of the particular difficulties of balancing responsibilities outside the workplace with a permanent job.

Table Three: Temporary Working by Reason

Table 3, Temporary Working by Reason

Source: Eurostat LFS 1997, Table 064

Despite the comparative inflexibility of the Irish job market in EU terms, at least with regard to the extent of part-time working, "the dramatic increase in the participation of married women, particularly young married women, in paid employment is one of the most striking changes to have occurred in Irish society over the past 25 years" (O'Connor 1999, p. 188). As the CSO (1997) has noted, "In the 25 years from 1971 to 1996 the number of women at work grew by 212,000... this compares with growth of just 23,000 in male employment over the same twenty five years" (p.1). However, this growth has taken place from a comparatively low base and activity rates for women are still comparatively low by EU standards (see Table Four)4.

Male activity rates in Ireland are generally higher than the EU norm, particularly for older men and those who are married. However, female activity rates are, in contrast, markedly lower than the EU average, especially for married women of child rearing age (25-49 years). The fact that activity rates for single females remain much higher, throughout their age span, and close to the EU average, suggests that the impact of caring responsibilities of female labour market participation in Ireland remain significant.


Table Four: Women at Work by Industry (NACE Rev.1)

Table 4, Women at Work by Industry

Source: Eurostat LFS 1997, Table 040

Such a situation is presumably exacerbated by the comparatively longer hours worked by both women and men in Ireland compared to the EU average (see Table Five). Long working hours for men can militate against their greater involvement in the sharing of caring and other responsibilities. Long working hours for women could likewise act as a deterrent to greater labour market involvement by those currently both inside and outside the labour market. Average hours usually worked per week are higher for men and women in agriculture, industry and a number of service industries than the EU norm. In this regard it is worth noting that females working in public administration in Ireland, where flexible working arrangements are most common, work an average of five hours per week longer than their Dutch colleagues do. To some extent, this difference will reflect variations between Member States in the level of part-time working.

Table Five: Usual Hours Worked by Industry (NACE Rev.1)

Table 5, Usual Hours Worked by Industry

Source: Eurostat LFS 1997, Table 072

The significance of long working hours for the more widespread introduction of flexible, family-friendly working arrangements cannot be overlooked. In her major study of working time in the UK, Marsh (1991) documents the long hours of work by many respondents. More than a quarter of men worked more than 50 hours per week compared with eight per cent of women working full-time. From a policy perspective, she concluded that "One of the most striking aspects of the Survey results is the very long hours that men commit to the activity of paid work... There seems no way in which a work pattern involving such a long commitment to paid employment could be emulated by anyone who had a major responsibility for children" (p.x). While the precise statistics would vary, there is little reason to assume that such a similar situation does not apply in Ireland.

In addition, growth of a long-hours culture is a well-documented phenomenon in many EU countries. In a recent UK-wide survey for the Rowntree Foundation, Burchell et al (1999) found that two-thirds of employees said that they 'always' or 'regularly' worked longer than their basic working hours; just over 30 per cent of full-time male employees were regularly working more than 48 hours per week. Moreover, 39 per cent of all interviewees claimed that their working hours had increased over the past five years, while only 15 per cent said their hours had declined.

4.3 Flexible working in non-commercial organisations

It is clearly indicated by the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (2000), that the development of family-friendly working arrangements has been most advanced to date in the Irish public service. This trend is extremely important, given the crucial role still played by the public service in the wider labour market. Although CSO (1997) estimates indicate that the importance of direct public sector employment within the national labour market has declined, relative to the private sector, over the past decade, it still accounts for over 20 per cent of all non-agricultural employment. Within the public sector overall, commercial sector bodies have declined in employment terms more significantly than non-commercial bodies. Similarly, within the public service, there is significant intra-sectoral variation. Thus, while employment has grown in the education and health services sectors, it has remained largely static in local government and has declined in the Defence Forces.

Although a far more restricted category, it is also interesting to note that within 'public administration and defence', LFS data indicate that there were also significant gender differences in these trends over time. For example, between 1987-1997, although total male and female employment increased by 12 per cent and 46 per cent respectively the situation in public administration and defence appears to have been very different. Between 1987-1997, total males in work in this sector declined by seven per cent and total females employed in the sector increased by 37 per cent (see Ruane and Sutherland 1999).

Such apparent comparative feminisation of the public service workforce in recent years has, however, to be placed in context. As Delivering Better Government (1996) makes clear, " ... many women employees are concentrated at the lower levels where their potential is underused and women are not adequately represented at the most senior management levels in the Irish Civil Service" (p. 47). In fact, employment patterns within the Civil Service are highly gendered. As Ruane and Sutherland (1999) observe, "The total number of people employed within the Civil Service at the end of 1996 was just under 30,000, with 49 per cent of these being female ... The overwhelming majority of women in 1996 were employed at the level of Clerical Officer (CO) and Clerical Assistant (CA). Women also make up the majority of those employed at Staff Officer (SO) and Cleaner grades" (p. 74). The same authors also note similar patterns of female under-representation at more senior levels in local government, the medical and educational professions, an Garda Sochna and the Defence Forces. It is important to establish this overall framework because of its significance for understanding the pattern of flexible working as it currently exists in the Irish public service.

4.3.1 Jobsharing

Although they relate only to the industrial grades in the Civil Service and are limited in their scope, data from the CEN-SIS provide the most reliable and detailed information available on those opting for flexible working arrangements. The June 1997 CEN-SIS data provides information on current and former job sharers (see Humphreys, Drew and Murphy 1999). Of the 2,359 sharers recorded at that time, only 112 or five per cent were men. Of the total women jobsharing (2,247), 42 per cent were doing so to care for members of their family and a further 22 per cent cited other domestic reasons. Only 13 women, less than one per cent, were job-sharing in order to study. In comparison, 16 per cent of the small number of male job-sharers were doing so for study reasons. However, it is also important to note that 36 percent of male job sharers were doing so for family care reasons. Given the gendered nature of participation in job sharing arrangements currently, and the preponderance of women in the lower grades of the Civil Service noted above, it is not perhaps surprising that clerical staff (CA/CO) account for two-thirds of all jobsharers, with only nine per cent at Higher Executive Officer (HEO) level and above. At that time there were no job-sharers at Principal Officer (PO) level and above.

4.3.2 Career Breaks

Using the same data source, quite a different picture exists with regard to career breaks compared to jobsharing (see Humphreys, Drew and Murphy 1999).

  • Take up is much lower, with only 616 staff recorded as having taken career breaks: i.e. this arrangement was only one quarter as popular as job-sharing.
  • A much higher proportion (26 per cent) of those on career breaks was in the higher grades of HEO and above.
  • The gender balance of participants was also more even with 40 per cent of participants being male.
  • However, distinct gender differences remained with regard to the motivation for taking a career break. Compared to only 13 per cent of men, 38 per cent of women on career breaks did so for care of the family and other domestic reasons. In contrast, men tend to take career breaks to broaden their future career options.

4.4 Flexible working in large commercial companies

Unfortunately, it is more difficult to obtain an authoritative picture of the extent and character of flexible, family friendly working arrangements in Irish commercial organisations, in both the private and public sectors. Individual companies have made public their experiences with flexible working arrangements in order to help encourage their evaluation and wider adoption. Such firms include Aer Rianta, Akzo Nobel Organnon (Ireland), Allied Irish Bank (AIB), Bank of Ireland, the Electricity Supply Board (ESB), First Active, Microsoft, An Post and Voluntary Health Insurance (VHI).

In a survey of Equal Opportunities in the State-Sponsored Sector (1999), which includes the large commercial as well as the smaller non-commercial bodies, the following pattern emerges:

  • 46% of organisations indicated that flexitime was available, although only 10% of the total semi-state workforce were employed on a flexitime basis.
  • jobsharing was available in 49% of organisations, although only 1% of staff jobshared.
  • 52% of organisations reported staff on career break, although take up of career breaks was less than 1%.
  • Only 4% of jobs were part-time.

Overall a similar pattern of involvement with flexible working arrangements was indicated to that in the Civil Service. Participation profiles for part-time, flexitime, job-sharing and career breaks were predominantly in the lower clerical grade posts, which are also overwhelmingly female. With the exception of clerical staff, however, some interesting variation is apparent. Part-time work is most typical of semi-skilled, and catering/cleaning and allied services. Flexitime work is more typical of junior and middle management grades. Career breaks are most frequently availed of by professional staff.

4.5 Flexible working in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs)

Similar patterns are also evident in the SME commercial sector. Fisher (2000) estimates that 53% of small to medium-sized enterprises operate one or more family friendly work arrangements, although the overall number of employees involved with such measures remains small. In this respect it is also important to distinguish between the situation in small firms (i.e. upto 50 staff) and medium sized firms (51-250 staff). Although 98% of all Irish firms are small, with 90% employing less than 10 staff, only 49% had one or more family friendly working arrangements. This compares with 60% of medium sized firms.

Overall, SME employers perceive such arrangements as applying mainly to female staff to help with childcare. Accordingly, such arrangements predominate in those companies with a predominantly female workforce and/or in clerical and administrative grades. They were not generally felt to be appropriate in production industries. Likewise, very few SMEs have either established formal policies for their staff or have undertaken any formal evaluation of their operation. Most believe that such arrangements should be provided to employees on an ad hoc and case-by-case basis. Indeed, at present, most family friendly/flexible working arrangements had arisen as a result of requests from staff. Although uptake has been limited, Fisher (2000) observes that "There is almost universal interest among SME employers in finding out more about the arrangements and in being advised as to what other employer organisations are doing in that context" (p. 13).

4.6 Key messages

Drawing upon the above analysis of international and national statistics and survey results to assess the extent and character of flexible and innovative working arrangements in Ireland and the wider European Union, a number of key messages can be identified:

  • There are real problems when attempting to quantify satisfactorily the extent of family friendly/flexible working arrangements at international and national levels, due to limitations in the available data. Such shortcomings have significant implications for the informed development of family-friendly policies and strategies. Effectively, what is counted counts.
  • As far as can be ascertained from the limited data available, engagement with flexible arrangements at present is highly gendered, e.g. in relation to part-time working, job sharing, temporary working and career breaks. In particular, arrangements involving reduced working hours are significantly associated with female staff who may be attempting to reconcile the demands upon their time both inside and outside work. In the private sector these arrangements tend to be less formalised than in the more unionised public service.
  • Full-time working remains the norm throughout the EU generally and Ireland specifically. For example, less than full-time working remains a minority activity in each EU Member State, although it is significantly less common in Ireland than other Member States like the Netherlands.
  • Part-time working is growing in importance in the services sector throughout Europe and is linked inextricably with overall employment growth and, in particular, the dramatic increases in female labour market participation.
  • There is evidence, from the SME sector for example, that there is a knowledge gap as to the potential benefits of family friendly/flexible working arrangements and an interest in sharing information on best practice developments.


Chapter One: Background and Introduction
Chapter Two: What are Family Friendly Working Arrangements?
Chapter Three: Why Work Flexibly?
Chapter Four: How Much Working is Flexible
Chapter Five: Changing Policy Perspectives
Chapter Six: Legal Perspectives
Chapter Seven: Workplace Perspectives
Chapter Eight: Key Issues and Challenges
Annex One Checklist for developing family friendly/flexible working arrangements in the workplace

Last modified:07/11/2008

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