The quiet revolution of Britain's part-time workers

Bosses are still wary of admitting to being a 'part timer', yet slowly but surely top jobs are opening up to people who don't want to work five days a week. Emma De Vita talks to some of those under the radar.

by Emma De Vita
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

How many people do you know who have senior roles but work less than five days a week? One? None? Actually, it may be more, it's just that those finance directors, entrepreneurs or deputy CEOs don't want you to know they work part time in case you judge them lacking in commitment or ambition. In fact, three-quarters of senior part-time workers earning a full-time equivalent (FTE) £75,000 or more would never use the term part time when describing their own pattern of work, according to professional part-time jobsite Timewise. Just over 40% say it's because of the negative stereotype, nearly a quarter because they don't want to be unfairly labelled as uncommitted, and 10% because they fear it could affect their chance of promotion.

It's not surprising, if you consider that nearly three-quarters of Britons don't believe it's possible to work part time at a senior level, despite the fact that 90% who do so say they feel successful in their job. And with 650,000 people in the UK in part-time jobs paying at least £40,000 FTE, this quiet revolution can't go unnoticed for much longer. It's time to out these pioneers and give the lie to the idea that it's impossible to flourish in a senior role and advance your career on less than five days a week.

Lynn Rattigan, deputy chief operating officer for the UK and Ireland at Ernst & Young, has worked at the firm for 11 years and has Wednesdays off to look after her three-year-old twin daughters. The rest of the week, aside from being responsible for revenues of more than £950m, 400 partners and 6,000 staff, she is chief operating officer for tax and, on the client side, leads E&Y's human capital services provision for Unilever. It must make toddler tantrums seem a doddle.

She first started working reduced hours (she admits she prefers using this term to part time) when she returned from a year's maternity leave in October 2010. Both she and her husband decided they would work four days a week to help look after their children. Rattigan says part-time working at the firm wasn't unusual, though she didn't assume she'd be able to do it. 'You have to approach it from a business perspective - just because I'm a working mother didn't mean I had a divine right to work reduced hours,' she says matter of factly. 'You have to ask what's in it for the business and what's in it for me, because there's no point working five days a week in four days.'

Rattigan's proud that, for the most part, her arrangement works 'brilliantly'. From the start she made sure that there was no ambiguity about when she would be working. 'My clients know I don't work on a Wednesday, and that's never been a problem,' she explains. 'From an internal perspective, I've made it clear that on a Wednesday I have sole responsibility for my two daughters, and it's just not practical to do work.' Like any senior executive, she'll work longer hours in the office and during the evenings to get the job done.

Does she think of herself as a part-time worker? 'No. I don't have any less drive or commitment,' she says emphatically - she was promoted to deputy COO on her return from maternity leave, after all. 'The drive and determination to do well are what make me successful,' she says. 'I don't feel I've had to compromise on ambition and I don't think it makes any difference to my career trajectory.'

You might think that looking after children would be the most common reason why career-orientated women - and men - choose not to work full time, but you'd be wrong. According to Timewise, 29% of part-time professionals give childcare as the reason they worked reduced hours, while slightly more (30%) said: 'I enjoy working fewer hours and my part-time salary is all I need.'

Nicola Mendelsohn has worked part-time for 16 years and has never found it a problemNicola Mendelsohn (left), chairman and partner of ad agency Karmarama and the first female president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, has been working part time for 14 years. After having the first of her four children 16 years ago when she was a 26-year-old account director, she found herself miserable working full time and asked her bosses if she could have Fridays off. 'It was a confidence thing,' says the Mancunian, who plucked up the courage to ask for what she wanted at a time when no one else seemed to be doing it. 'I wanted a better balance,' she says. 'In truth, I'd got to the point where it was pretty much a necessity for my personal happiness.'

Her part-time working carried on when she moved companies and she says it was never an issue. Her children are now at school but Mendelsohn still has Fridays off, relishing the freedom and time to work for other boards and charities. 'It's liberating,' she says, not least for the space it gives her to think - something especially precious for her chairman role. 'It gives you the ability to reflect properly, and it's a day of not being present,' she says from a taxi in between meetings, during a working day that started at 7am and won't finish until midnight.

 Mendelsohn agrees there's a problem with the 'part time' label and tells people she doesn't work on Fridays rather than describe herself as such. 'It is very much a negative thing, especially towards women. Men go "plural" - they don't work part time. It's a negative, feminine word,' she says.

'You get to a point in life when other things become more important', Ameet Shah saysAmeet Shah (right), director of strategy at BT for the past couple of months, stipulated when taking the job that he wanted to work four days. Shah has an impressive CV, including stints at Bain & Co and Accenture before joining management consultancy PRTM as partner. The company was sold to PwC last year, after which Shah took some time out, and that's when he realised he wanted to work part time (the 48 year-old describes it as a bit of a mid-life crisis). 'I'd done the heavy duty part; put all the hours in, and have achieved a level of success I'm confident with. But you get to a point in life when other things become more important,' he reflects.

He got involved with a charity, which he says re-energised him and made him realise what was missing from his life. He helped set up another charity called MeWe360, which supports creative talents outside what Shah calls the standard Oxbridge, middle-class establishment, and it's one of the charities he works with on Fridays. How's it working out? 'It's actually OK,' says Shah, who hails from Tanzania. 'I've had to learn to do things a bit differently. I've found that what's important is to focus on the value-add and to be much more organised.'

Shah says that he's learnt to rely on and trust his people more, which they in turn enjoy. But as all part timers (sorry, reduced hours workers) know, there is a quid pro quo - you inevitably end up working when you are not supposed to be, from checking email to conference calls and even the odd personal appearance. On his day off, Shah admits that he scans his BlackBerry to check there's nothing desperately urgent, and says he'd take a call or drop in to the office if necessary.

Does he think choosing to work part time will have a detrimental effect on his career? 'I'm not sure,' he says. 'One level up is the executive committee and that's a few years away - it may happen, it may not. If you do a good job, opportunities will arise. Whether I'm delaying that is a risk I'm willing to take. I'm happy doing a senior job and being able to do other things, and I appreciate it - you feel a bit privileged.'

An expert in this subject is Karen Mattison, the founder of Timewise. She would be pleased that Shah is open about the fact he works part time - getting people to fess up and talk about how they work is the only way its status can be improved, she argues. The problem comes because most senior part timers have negotiated their three or four days a week down from five. She calls them 'concession and retention' jobs which wouldn't have been advertised and, therefore, people don't know about them.

The other reason, says Mattison, is 'those in senior roles don't want to make a big thing about it because they don't want to be perceived as not being ambitious. There is a perception that part time is for low-skilled and junior roles. I think because of the stigma of it they're not able to be that open about it and, therefore, there is a huge amount happening under the radar.'

Helen Michels says some people at her company don't even know she works part timeHelen Michels (left), global innovation director at Diageo, thinks there are some people she knows at her company who don't realise that she works part time, though it's not something she's covert about. At the drinks company for 12 years, she chose to work three days a week seven years ago after she had her son. She pitched a different role to her boss, who Michels said was very supportive: 'I'm not sure I would have been as successful without her.'

But, she adds: 'If I'm really honest, my career has slowed. That can be tough to swallow but I've made certain choices. I'm probably the most senior flexible worker at Diageo and there is a need to consider roles more creatively so they can be done three days a week.'

Alison Lomax, industry head of creative agency partnerships at Google, seems surprised when asked if working part time has held her back. 'Not at all. My career has taken off since working part time,' she says. At Google for only nine months, she has worked reduced hours for the past six years to spend time with her two young daughters, experimenting with both three and four days a week. Wednesday is now her day out of the office, and she says this suits her best, as she's only away from her daughters for two days at a time.

'I don't categorise myself as part time, I just don't work on Wednesdays,' she says, and is quite proud of being able to pull it off so well. 'When I first started working part time I used to apologise about it, whereas now I'm really clear about it.' She says she's become unbelievably productive when she's at work and has become adept at letting people know what she can and can't do, as well as being more disciplined on her day off when it comes to checking work.

What's more, she doesn't think the term part time has negative connotations - if only all senior part timers could say that. Isn't it time to change the stereotype? If you're that finance director, entrepreneur or deputy CEO who's keeping schtum about working less than five days a week, the time has come to step out of the closet.

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