EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Flexible working time arrangements and gender equality

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A recent EU study looks at the incidence of flexible working time arrangements and their implication for gender equality in 30 European countries. It found wide diversity in the length of working time but an overall increase in its incidence. It also looked at flexibility in the organisation of working time, focusing on flexible schedules, working from home and atypical hours. There were some positive links with gender equality but some potentially more negative aspects.

A study (3.66Mb PDF) on flexible working time arrangements and gender equality in 30 European countries published by the European Commission in October 2010 analyses the situation in the 27 EU Member States plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

Increasing the flexibility of working time arrangements and gender equality are two key EU employment policies. Companies need to increase their flexibility in order to respond to changes in demand and remain competitive, while employees need more flexibility in order to suit their lifestyle and to reconcile work and family life.

The main focus of this study is internal quantitative flexibility, which refers to flexibility in the length of working time and also to the flexible organisation of working time, including homeworking and work during atypical hours.

Flexibility in the length of working time

The EU provides a basic framework for working time through its directives on working time (Directive 2003/88/EC) and part-time work (Directive 97/81/EC). The study looks in detail at national provisions governing issues such as the organisation of working time, part-time work, overtime and night work, finding a range of differences between countries in areas such as the length of the working week. For example, in the new EU Member States, the 40-hour week is much more ‘intact’ than elsewhere in the EU. However, the study (p. 7) also notes some common overall trends:

For a long time, the trend has been towards a progressive regulation and a shortening of the full-time working week. Yet, at the end of the 20th century, the emphasis has shifted in favour of more flexible and individualised working hours.

Using data from the EU Labour Force Survey (EU LFS) 2007, the study found considerable national differences when it looked at working time flexibility patterns with a focus on part-time work, overtime and long working hours. For example:

  • Austria and the United Kingdom have a high ranking on all three of these indicators;
  • the Netherlands has a high score on part-time employment and overtime;
  • the Czech Republic and Iceland have high scores on working overtime and working long hours.

The four countries that are the least flexible and score low on all three indicators are Cyprus, Hungary, Lithuania and Portugal.

From a gender point of view, the study rates the increased flexibility in working hours positively as more individualised working hours can help employees to reconcile their work obligations and personal life. However, it also states that greater flexibility may have a negative effect on gender equality as, in many countries, part-time work is predominantly undertaken by women and is also concentrated in low-paid sectors. It concludes that it is therefore difficult to claim that greater flexibility, in terms of the length of working time, will increase gender equality.

Flexibility in the organisation of working time

The study looked at flexibility in the organisation of working time in the areas of flexible working time schedules, working from home and working atypical hours. This research used:

  • harmonised data from the 2004 EU LFS ad hoc module on work organisation and working time;
  • data on working from home (from EU LFS 2004) and on flexibility in terms of working atypical hours (from EU LFS 2007).

Overall, the report notes that flexibility in terms of working time schedules still appears to be relatively limited; the only countries where the majority of employees have flexible working time schedules being Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway and Sweden. In countries with the lowest levels of flexibility in working time, notably the new Member States and southern European countries, flexibility practices such as working time banking are not common.

Flexibility in terms of working at home also seems to be limited. The report concludes (p. 62) that flexible working time schedules are often considered to be a mechanism to support working parents in combining work and family life:

As long as ‘flexibility’ continues to be considered as mainly a ‘female’ way of organising working time, the use of these schemes may offer limited choice.

Commentary

One of the main findings of this study was that differences between the EU Member States in terms of working time flexibility are still significant. Where there is working time flexibility, this can be rated as something that can increase gender equality because it helps individuals to maintain a work-life balance. However, it also brings disadvantages such as the concentration of women in low-paid, part-time work with little or no training or career opportunities available.

The study concludes (p. 79) that to have a positive effect on gender equality:

... flexible working time schemes should be carefully designed, so that the preferences of the employees are taken into account. In addition, the organisational culture plays an important role. As long as flexibility is still considered a ‘female’ way of organising working time, flexible working time schedules are more likely to confirm gender differences than to change them.

Reference

Plantenga, J., Remery, C. and EU Expert Group on Gender and Employment (EGGE), Flexible working time arrangements and gender equality: A comparative review of 30 European countries, Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union, 2010.

Andrea Broughton, Institute for Employment Studies (IES)

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