Could I work for you part-time?

In today's post, Amanda Walsh, PhD candidate, University of Wollongong, explores the stark contrast between the public service's pronouncements of supporting family-friendly work environments and what happens whena prospective employee asks the one question that should never be spoken out loud: ‘Could I work for you part-time?’ 

An hour ago, I sat down in a small room, across a table from three junior-ranking public servants, and began a job interview. It went swimmingly well, and my inquisitors beamed as we reached the end of the interview. In response to the ubiquitous, ‘And do you have any questions for us?’, I asked the one question that should never be spoken out loud: ‘Could I work for you part-time?’

At that point, the shutters came down. The chair of the selection panel issued an immediate, ‘No’, and that was that. There was no discussion about hours, not even any lip-service paid to family-friendliness. My offer to work five days per week, for 31.5 hours each week, was dismissed out of hand.

This instinctive rejection of part-time work is, to me, shocking, even though I should be getting used to it. Ten years ago, a middle manager in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet pulled me aside to offer me a permanent position in her team, congratulating me on my success in the recent recruitment round. When I mentioned I’d be working part-time, her smile vanished and she told me that that would be impossible. The job offer was withdrawn. Working full-time hours, I was a valuable talent the department wanted to keep; part-time, there was no room for me. My own manager at PM&C had already warned me against applying for promotion there, because they’d never promote a part-timer.

I did once snare a public service job on a part-time basis. But only because my new manager (whom I new through other professional channels) fought hard to make it happen. I was employed on a contract, though, and it lasted less than six months. There was little ‘risk’ involved in taking me on.

The contrast between public pronouncements about the importance of ‘family-friendly’ working environments, and actual practices in public sector agencies, is stark. And it seems absurd, especially against the backdrop of the current Federal government’s strong push to ‘get women back to work’ after the birth of their children. Most women with young children can’t work full-time or choose not to, for many sound reasons: from the unavailability or exorbitant cost of full-time child care to the particular needs of their children.

Yes, there are part-time jobs out there, but they are overwhelmingly in the feminised economy: retail, hospitality, child care, health services. Jobs with low pay, low status and low security. If you want a solid professional or managerial position on the government payroll, prepare to have your part-time status thrown back in your face—and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

So what’s the problem? The encouraging words of government ministers and mandarins are falling on deaf ears in the middling ranks of the public service. From my observations, some of this stems from self-importance: ‘My team’s work is vitally important—we couldn’t possibly have a part-timer on board. What would people think?’ Lack of imagination is another factor, and it’s a big one. The flexible, innovative work practices and spaces that characterise many world-leading firms (think Google and Facebook, among others) are a million miles away from public service agencies in Australia.

I’m one of the lucky ones. Over the past several years, I’ve worked as a freelancer, in the not-for-profit sector and at a university, which have proven to be highly flexible and imaginative when it comes to working conditions, even in high-pressure roles. The public service does not have a monopoly on ‘important’ work—but it might want to address its monopoly on self-importance.