Real Work: Men who do it by halves

The number of male part-time workers has more than doubled. BILL SAUNDERS finds out why
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Part-time work has always been woman's work but not, it would seem, for much longer. According to statistics released last week by the Labour Research Department (LRD), the number of men in part-time work is growing at an astonishing rate: by 138 per cent since 1988.

Steve Taylor is a man who has made a change of career in order to spend more time with his daughter Seraphina. Sceptical? So are many employers. "I find when I tell this to most men, it goes in one ear and out the other," he says. Originally he was a television sound recordist, "but it was just impossible to work in television unless you are available all week". Or all weekend sometimes. Only once did he agree to do a Saturday. "I explained [to colleagues] I'd have to bring my daughter. When I did, they couldn't believe it."

One thing that inspired him to change direction was the experiences of older colleagues. "I worked with so many cameramen who said `I wish I had spent more time with my children when they were younger'. I had always had an interest in computers, so I developed that." Now, Steve is a computer troubleshooter: if somebody wants him from Friday to Monday, "I can just tell them to get lost".

Should men work less? For many women, the answer would be "No way!" But perhaps they should consider that persuading men to change their habits could considerably ease their own burden of juggling home demands with those of a career. To date, part-time work still remains the preserve of women: despite the growth in male part-timers, 90 per cent of this country's part-time workforce is female. Of the total of women at work, 45 per cent work less than 30 hours a week. Since the number of part-time jobs is increasing faster than that of full-time jobs, it may soon be the case that the majority of women workers are part-time.

But one of the effects of men coming in is that the status of part-time work - traditionally low - may improve. The LRD's report also shows that while only a small proportion of part-time workers make the managerial grade, men have made that leap twice as often as their female counterparts, a startling disparity. It will be a frustrating figure for women who work part-time and have found their way to the top blocked, but it does offer the hope that these men have established an important precedent - there is room at the top for part-timers.

But how can there be a part-time manager when the whole culture is based around constant involvement, from the breakfast meeting to the mobile on the train? David Quarterman is proof that it can be done. Three years ago, when he was setting up his IT recruitment business, he was working 14-hour days, seven days a week. Now his involvement is down to two-and- a-half days.

How did he do it? He began by banishing all computers from his Cotswold cottage. "It had become hard to differentiate my home from the office," he says. "There was always the temptation to start working and think `I wonder if it's worth telephoning so-and-so' even if it's 10pm."

The next step was to set up his office so it could run without him. He had every confidence in his computer system because he had built it himself - and he also had every confidence in his staff. "I couldn't have done it without stalwart support," he says. "It runs better without me." Why did he hand over such a large amount of responsibility? "Variety as much as anything else," he says. His initial reason for setting up an IT recruitment consultancy was because he felt that "nobody else was doing it very well".

Now, it has reached such a pitch of success that other recruitment consultancies come to him to fill vacancies. But at heart he remains a technician, even though he found himself "almost becoming a salesman". Meanwhile, there was the pull of his other interests: his cottage in the Cotswolds and a similar property in France, plus his collection of Jaguars. Standing back from his business allowed him to do more of what he liked. He is now involved with some software development for the internet. He has also designed the IT system for the hotel in his village.

According to Emily Thornberry of the charity New Ways of Working, which encourages flexible working for both sexes, part-time managers are an important influence because change must come from the top.

"If the boss takes the afternoon off to take his little boy to the dentist, that says more than policy statements," she says. In every family there will always be a caring role and a breadwinning role. "There has to be. But the traditional pattern has been broken." Or is at least in the process of being reworked.

However, it still remains the case that British men work more hours than their European counterparts. The Labour Research Department defines part- time working as any job that involves less than 30 hours a week, but there are many people working part-time hours in the UK which would be considered full-time work elsewhere in Europe. In France, the official working week will be reduced to 35 hours next year, and there are moves in Germany to follow suit.

Ironically, the British culture of long hours is in some cases causing men to stop and take stock. Often, says Ms Thornberry, men reduce their own working hours because their partner also works long hours. Some are taking the step from choice. "There is no evidence to show that men cut down on work to help with the ironing or sew on buttons," she says, "but younger men are interested in spending time with their children."

Steve Taylor cites the case of one male friend who was astonished when the senior partners at his firm of solicitors assumed he would be keen to work at weekends because he had small children. In general, it seems, a man's interest in fatherhood is seldom taken seriously. And, as David Quarterman has found, work has an increasing tendency to creep into our social lives. He is greatly in demand for informal IT consultancy, and in the past has found it difficult to say no when asked for advice. Now he has the perfect deflection. "When I am asked what I do, I say I am the European road manager for ZZ Top. There is no way anybody can come back at me for something when I say that."

Comments