Sue Osborn and Susan Williams, the joint chief executives of Barking and Havering health authority, are a prime example of job-sharers whose desire to work part-time has not hindered their professional ambitions.
But they are a rare breed. Too often, organisations claiming to espouse the job-sharing cause make it difficult for senior managers to take advantage of such flexible work practices.
Opportunity 2000, which promotes equality in the workplace, is quick in its praise of organisations such as The Boots Company, Marks & Spencer, J Sainsbury and NatWest but, in reality, these are the exceptions. The BBC recently appointed Prue Keely and Jenni Russell as job-sharing editors on Radio 4's The World Tonight. They were looking for a way to achieve a strong balance between their work and home lives. The Corporation thought the move so exceptional that its PR people went on a publicity drive.
In the instances where senior managers job-share, there are certain common characteristics. The managers are usually female and work in the public sector, often in human resources. They will probably have been the first to approach their bosses with the idea, rather than vice versa. Sandra Meadows, joint director of personnel at University College London Hospitals NHS Trust, is typical in these respects. Her experiences differ in that, unusually, her job-sharing partner, Peter Rankin, is male. Equally unusual is the fact that neither of them has childcare obligations. Both work full-time but only put in three days a week at the Trust.
The two overlap for a day every Thursday and arrange the remaining working hours between them each week. 'We have one desk, one diary, one set of papers, and we also have a book in which we record in-the-corridor type conversations,' says Meadows. 'If anything major crops up, we can always phone each other and, if an immediate decision is needed, we have agreed that we will be bound by the decision of the one who's in.' The two have been in the post for four years now but it is rare for a decision to be so urgent that it can't wait even for a short while to allow the two to confer with each other. In some cases they will resolve an issue together by way of a telephone call. When they are not at the Trust, they work for the same consultancy, although usually on separate projects.
The advantage to job-sharing is that part-time employees can take on stimulating and responsible work that usually requires five-day-a-week cover. Sandra Webber, joint head of personnel in the Lord Chancellor's department, thrives in this environment. In a previous part-time post that she returned too after maternity leave, she felt sidelined and demotivated.
Her current job-share is extremely demanding.
Outside the small group of participating organisations, prejudice remais widespread. 'You find people who haven't encountered job-sharing before.
They think it shows a lack of commitment and that you're basically a housewife at heart,' says Webber.
Yet companies that have worked with the system see the advantages of hiring two brains for little more than the price of one. They understand that it is an effective way of holding on to their most experienced and capable staff, who would otherwise be lost to the workplace.