- There is a demand for flexible work and part-time roles among mid-career women.
- It can be difficult to find part-time roles that harness an experienced person’s skills and rewards them appropriately.
- Sharing a senior position between two people can benefit both the employer and the workers.
By Camille Howard
Marketing professional Lija Wilson spent 15 years building her career before taking time off to raise children. Looking to re-enter the workforce, she faced a challenge confronting many women seeking to work part time: it was impossible to return to the same opportunities, level of seniority and salary.
“I was very naive in thinking I could return to the same role and progress my career with the flexibility I wanted,” says Wilson, a former head of marketing for TEDxMelbourne and Qantas Hotels.
Wilson discovered that while other women were facing similar challenges, businesses were struggling to meet gender diversity targets for senior and executive leadership teams.
“There’s all these quotas and targets being applied to attracting and retaining more women, yet there’s this huge pool of senior women saying they can’t find flexible work,” she says.
Picture: Lija Wilson.
“There’s this huge pool of senior women saying they can’t find flexible work.”
At the end of 2016, Wilson launched job-matching platform Puffling to connect senior job-share candidates with flexible career opportunities. Like online dating, job seekers join a community in which they can browse positions employers have designed for sharing. Alternatively, a candidate may join forces with another job seeker and apply for roles as a team
Benefits of having a pair on the job
Job sharing is an ‘easy’ example of how flexibility can work. Its success, however, ultimately comes down to the pairing, as well as a combination of complementary skills and a strong culture fit, says Victoria Stuart, who co-founded executive recruitment marketplace Beam and workplace design tool Beamible.
A former Google employee who has spent more than 16 years in technology development and sales, Stuart set up Beam in late 2016 with Stephanie Reuss, a former KPMG staffer and managing director of CEB (formerly Corporate Executive Board). They were driven by frustration over how many highly skilled professionals were dropping out of the workforce because they couldn’t find suitable part-time work.
The benefits, according to Stuart, are threefold: “You get two different perspectives and capabilities brought to the role for the price of one. We also have two people who are working part time and it’s proven that discretionary effort increases by 21% for those people working reduced hours in a week.
“It’s proven that discretionary effort increases by 21% for those people working reduced hours in a week.”
“And employers are more likely to attract women into a role that is job share,” she adds.
Organisations that can offer genuine part-time or job-share roles have a real point of difference and advantage over competitors, Reuss adds.
“The talent market is very tight, and expectations are through the roof on flexible work. If you don’t offer those options – and job share is the perfect example of an easy way for organisations to do it – then you simply miss out on a huge pool of skilled and talented women.”
Redesigning roles and vertical job share
To make job sharing and other flexible roles work requires a team-based approach to splitting work, Stuart explains. “It’s really designing roles from the bottom up that gives different alternatives to the types of skills and people you might be able to attract into a particular team or organisation.”
Stuart recommends organisations consider ‘vertical job share’, where more senior and junior roles are partnered together, providing a pipeline of talent through the organisation when people move on.
“We think the best way is to design the work for job share, and not to lead with a ‘personality fit’ partnership,” Reuss adds.
This involves breaking up the responsibilities, planning that works around people’s days off, communication plans and budgeting, which then supports individuals to be successful.
“In the past, if people wanted to work flexibly, the onus was on the individuals to make it work,” Reuss says, adding that the balance of power has now shifted and organisations need to take responsibility for supporting job-sharing pairs by designing roles that set them up for success.
Flexible work vs billable hours
Reuss says professional services is a sector that, in the past, has had some resistance to part-time work, largely due to a belief that part-time work doesn’t fit in with billable hours.
“For some reason there’s a mindset around billable hours and there shouldn’t be,” she says. “You should be able to break up the week in terms of billable hours and loads, but [professional services] just don’t want to.
“Most accountants, in any field, are working on multiple projects at a point in time. Essentially, they’re working part-time on each of those projects,” she adds.
Yet, when it comes to those people wanting to work fewer days there is resistance, and there are very few roles offered. “And that’s where you see those careers stall, or people disengaging.”
Addressing the pay gap
A 2019 KPMG report for the Australian government, She’s Price(d)less, applied econometric modelling to data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey to unpack the factors that contribute to the gender pay gap for women.
It found the combined impact of years not working due to interruptions, part-time employment and unpaid work contributes to 39% of the gender pay gap for women.
According to the CA ANZ 2021 Remuneration Report, chartered accountants in Australia and New Zealand gained salary increases of more than 4% in the past year. For a female chartered accountant taking two years off work, that’s a potential loss of an 8% pay rise – a gap that continues to widen throughout her career. At a senior level among CA ANZ members, the survey shows men are paid about 40-50% more than women in both countries.
Wilson believes job sharing can play a significant part in bridging that gap.
“It’s the missing link for a lot of people at the moment because there is a reality that a lot of senior roles [need to be] covered across the week.”
Executive-level role share presents a huge opportunity to address that issue, whether as a stop-gap measure or a longer-term option, she says.
“Start-ups do it really well. There’s a lot of co-CEOs in start-ups, and they will deliberately look at two CEOs that have complementary skills.”
Tech companies are another example. Until his death in 2019, Mark Hurd served as co-CEO of Oracle with Safra Catz. Closer to home, Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar serve as co-CEOs of Atlassian.
Role sharing has a lot of flexibility in terms of how the arrangement works among the roles, Wilson explains. It doesn’t have to be split into two- and three-day or even 2.5-day arrangements, for example. “Keeping more women in those senior leadership roles and thinking differently about applying skills will then ultimately help bridge that gap, because it all comes back to retention.
“That’s essentially why we’re looking at statistics that are so unfavourable in pay-gap terms.”
Who gets job sharing right?
According to Wilson, some of the banks do job sharing really well, but there’s still a low take-up in the corporate world, despite the success stories.
One she highlights is the pairing of Lucy Foster and Catherine van der Veen, general managers at Challenger Limited. The duo has shared a high-pressure executive level career in financial services for more than four years, initially at Commonwealth Bank, then at Generation Life financial services.
Joel McInnes, who co-founded FlexCareers when his wife struggled to return to the corporate world after raising their children, also highlights the success of return-to-work programs for women coming off career gaps. Those run by Deloitte and EY offer structured induction and training programs, coaches and mentors, and enable the returnees to shadow colleagues on client engagements before being transitioned to work on projects. Commonwealth Bank runs a similar 10-week Career Comeback Program.
“It’s a good a way for firms to reach the demographic they are losing – women mid-career – and it’s also a dedicated way back into corporate life for women,” says McInnes, adding FlexCareers is currently recruiting “a large cohort of women” for ANZ’s return-to-work program.
Picture: Joel McInnes.
“It’s a good a way for firms to reach the demographic they are losing – women mid-career – and it’s also a dedicated way back into corporate life for women.”
Beating the stigma of job share
While organisations don’t seem to have an issue with the concept of job share, per se, Wilson says stigma still exists around how the arrangement affects hiring managers and the pair’s wider team.
Some of the objections include increased administration work, duplication of tasks, work falling through the cracks, and perceived risks with introducing job share for senior roles.
But Wilson says the objections don’t stand up against the value of job-share arrangements, or the inherent desire from candidates to make the arrangement a success.
“And the more senior the pair, the fewer issues there are,” she adds.
Interestingly, according to Wilson, New Zealand employers seem to be far more open to role sharing than their peers in Australia. Although it is only new to the market, Puffling already has about 500 candidates on its New Zealand books. This may be due to how much tighter the candidate market is there. FlexCareers also operates in New Zealand, where McInnes says the border closures have made it harder for employers to find staff with appropriate experience.
Will job sharing grow post-COVID?
McInnes expects the appetite for job-share roles will grow post-COVID.
He points to research conducted by his firm that found 75% of businesses now expect workers to work in a hybrid model that combines days in the office with remote work.
“What has been seen can’t be unseen,” he says of the workplace shifts. “We’ve also realised the wheels didn’t necessarily fall off in the way we ran our businesses.”
If employers want to be successful, they need to accept new definitions of what work means. “Part of that is where you work, but it’s also flexibility: that’s where job share comes in.
“Employers are now looking for particular skill sets and once they have that skill set they can design a role around the person – rather than designing a full-time, part-time or job-share role and trying to find the person who fits that job.”
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