Why Don’t More American Moms Work Part-Time?

Elsewhere in the world, working part-time is common among women. Only about a quarter of American women work part-time, compared with about 12 percent of men. But the majority of Dutch women work part-time, and nearly 45 percent of Swiss women do. By American standards, these women lead lives of enviable slowness. In a 2010 article for Slate, Jessica Olien, a writer living in the Netherlands, described neighbors who spent the workweek “playing sports, planting gardens, doing art projects, hanging out with their children, volunteering, and meeting their family friends.” As one study on this topic cheerily concluded, “Our results suggest that part-time jobs are what most Dutch women want.”

But Dutch women pay a price for this freedom: They are less likely than American women to be managers. And all over the world, part-time work tends to convey less prestige and lower pay. If more American women shift to part-time employment, it could worsen the gender pay gap, or result in fewer women leading organizations. “If highly paid professional women” want to work less, Folbre told me, “I think that’s great.” Then again, she said, “I’m not totally sure [these women] really understand just how badly their career trajectories will be affected.”

In the U.S., high-paying, part-time jobs are not very common, because American bosses tend to frown on workers asking to work less, and existing part-time jobs are less likely to come with high salaries or good benefits. For more American women to work part-time, more companies would have to be willing to hire people part-time. Child care would have to get cheaper and more accessible, because some women currently can’t afford even part-time child care. Paid parental leave would have to become a standard beyond the whitest of white-collar work, so that having a baby didn’t mean risking your job and livelihood. Higher wages would help make the math work, too. And women would need more time on their hands to push for these things. “By making women so stressed out, so time-scarce, we’ve also limited their ability to be active politically and to advocate for what they need,” Representative Porter told me.

Making part-time work possible for everyone would also require erasing some of its stigma. Instead of saying they work part-time, it’s often more acceptable for professional American women to say they’re consulting or freelancing, says Heggeness, from the U.S. Census Bureau. Entrepreneurship is a proud American tradition; taking it easy is not.

Working less is something professional women struggle with, even when they’re in hour 14 of the workday and their kids have forgotten what they look like. The women I talked with describe themselves, if not as feminists, then at least as hard workers who never saw quitting as an option, and who—briefly—wondered if going part-time set a bad example for their kids. Fastow, who is a founding partner of her public-affairs firm, Seven Letter, is moving into an internally facing, part-time position with the company. The decision to go part-time was a hard one; she describes herself as an “all in” person, someone who never does anything halfway. “My identity for myself had become wrapped up in this idea of being a big, bad boss bitch,” she said. She came to see the new job as still being all-in, but all-in for her family—and maybe even all-in for her own mental and physical health.


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