Thursday 04 June 2020

Glass ceiling? It’s a sticky workfloor that makes women stay put

It’s not the glass ceiling that keeps women from the top positions but the sticky workfloor of part-time jobs, says Barbara Baarsma, director of knowledge development at Rabobank and economics professor at the University of Amsterdam.

If, like me, you think quota are a paternalistic panacea for the lack of women in top executive positions, you are duty-bound to monitor the labour market for women with an eagle eye. Unfortunately, the last 15 years do not make for happy viewing.

The good news is that in 2018 over six in ten women are in work, half a woman more than in 2003. Having children is, apparently, no longer the hurdle to employment it used to be.

Some 29% of working women have jobs in management, which is a good sign as it paves the way to the top. Compared to the 26% of women who work full time, women are not doing badly at all. The ratio is much lower for men: 73% work full time while ‘only’ 71%  of managers is male.

But apart from this not much has changed since 2003 and in some respects women’s position on the labour market has worsened. They are working part time more often when working full time would improve their chances at climbing the corporate ladder.

Meagre score

The rungs that lead up to a position on the board of directors or the supervisory board are the so-called executive management functions. Only one in eight of these were held by women in 2017. In this day and age that is a very meagre score. But in order to qualify for a function such as this, years of full time working experience and a willingness to put in the hours are a must. That is where the women come a cropper.

Highly trained women are working full time more often (by an increase of almost 0.5% since 2003) while the percentage of full time working women with a mid or low level of education fell by 4.5 percentage points. As long as this situation persists, quotas are not going to make any difference.

The problem is not so much a glass ceiling as a sticky work floor littered with small part time jobs. Women – and men – are of course free to work part time or not at all but only as long as society is not called on to foot the bill.

Financial independence

Relatively small part time jobs also undermine women’s financial independence. To be economically independent means to be able to survive on an income without having to rely on a partner or the government. The norm for economic independence is a net income from work of more than 70% of the net minimum wage.

Thanks to the fact that more women work and the economic upturn, 60% of women are economically independent in 2016, still 20 percentage points down on men. But the figures are showing some worrying trends as well, especially among women with a low level of education. Only a quarter can look after themselves financially while women with mid-level qualifications struggle at just over 50%.

Women who are not economically independent are in a vulnerable position when it comes to a divorce. According to figures from the socio-cultural think-tank SCP they see their spending power plummet by an average of 25%. The chances of a divorce happening are 40%, which makes working a small part time job, or not working at all, a risky strategy.

Longer hours

The best insurance for financial independence is not a partner who earns more or social security but sufficient own income. And that usually means working longer hours.

The position of women on both sides of the labour market spectrum would benefit from women working longer hours or full time. It is the only way to increase the number of financially independent women and open up the road to the top jobs.

Women don’t need the old fashioned boost of quotas. They need a modern labour market policy which will stimulate working longer hours while offering decent conditions such as adapted school schedules, flexible working hours and good child care at reasonable cost and not subject to a seesaw government policy. A cabinet who will make this a priority can ditch quota once and for all.

This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad

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