Date posted: 13/05/2024 5 min read

How to avoid the part-time promotion cliff

Part-time workers often face career penalties, so how can you combine these roles with the kind of work you truly want to do?

Quick take

  • The career of part-time workers is often limited by a ‘part-time promotion cliff’.
  • Part-time roles are widely undervalued and the ambition of part-time workers is often misunderstood.
  • Solutions for working part-time in more satisfying roles may include careful job scoping and redesign, job sharing and focusing on job output rather than hours.

Part-time work has long suffered from an image problem. If you don’t work the traditional five-day week, are you fully committed to your organisation? Perhaps you’re not that ambitious or reliable. Are you really serious about your job?

These assumptions about part-time roles limit the career opportunities for people who work in this form of employment Data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) shows that while 21% of employees worked part-time in 2022–23, only 7% of managers were employed part-time.

But with part-time work a goal – or a necessity – for many people, how can you combine these roles with leadership responsibilities, or work on projects that might not typically be offered to part-timers? How can you avoid what WGEA describes as the ‘part-time promotion cliff’?

Part-time assumptions

Part-time roles remain widely misunderstood. Paula McDonald, vice chancellor, research and professor of work and organisation at Queensland University of Technology, conducted research into job quality of part-time work in 2009. The findings showed it was associated with reduced responsibilities, less access to high-status roles and projects, a lack of access to promotion opportunities, increased work intensity and poor workplace support.

“That was 15 years ago, and while things have changed a bit, it’s definitely not enough,” says McDonald. “People who work between one and three days a week are particularly undervalued.”

Gillian Brookes, flexible workplace specialist and author of Flexperts, says part-time roles have also been undervalued.

“Part-time work has traditionally been viewed as admin work,” she says. “If you go back a few decades, it was often viewed as pin money for working mums and I think that image persists, which is a real problem.”

Brookes adds that pro rata hourly rates for part-time work tend to be lower than that of full-time roles which also contributes to the gender pay gap.

Data from the latest CA ANZ Remuneration Survey shows women respondents are six times more likely than men to work part-time. Of those who work part-time, women are almost twice as likely to have taken a career break than men.

“There's also a real quality problem when people are looking for part-time professional roles,” says Brookes. “They are quite rare, so many people end up applying for full-time roles and then trying their luck to turn it into part-time.”

What’s the scope?

Despite the image problem, part-time work can be satisfying – and successful – for both individuals and organisations.

In the UK, for example, social enterprise Timewise publishes a Power List of part-time workers. Roles include co-CEOs, business unit leaders and global brand directors.

Belinda Morgan, flexible work and leadership specialist and author of Solving the Part-Time Puzzle, says part-time work can extend to leadership roles or diverse projects, but there’s a risk of doing a full-time role in a part-time capacity.

“People who do it well scope the role in conjunction with their leader and the people around them, so that they are working a role that is truly part-time,” she says.

Scoping roles thoroughly is a first step to succeeding in part-time work. Morgan says redesigning roles can also help.

“Often, when you pull apart a role, you can see that you’ve been doing a piece of it because that’s what has always been done, even if you don’t need to do it anymore,” she says.

Job sharing may be another solution; however, McDonald notes that it has had a “bad reputation”.

“There's a lot of resistance to it and in a lot of the interviews that I’ve undertaken over the years, there’s a perception that in order for two people to job share, they have to have the same skill sets and the same capacities.

“But if you think about what a job actually is, it’s a series of tasks that have been put together to create a full-time role,” adds McDonald. “Often, those roles, or the tasks within those roles, can be divvied up in a different way to create opportunities for part-time work.”

Focus on the upside

If you want to switch to part-time work, Brookes recommends preparing your pitch and explaining how you can add value in a part-time capacity.

“Don’t look at it as a deficit,” she says. “Don’t apologise. Focus on the upside of it. For example, by working part-time in a leadership role, you can help develop the future leaders of the organisation because they may need to step up on the days you’re not there.

“Describe to your employer how you see your strengths really lifting this role,” adds Brookes. “Ask them questions – what do they want that role to have achieved in 12 months – and then explain how your strengths can help to achieve this. That way, they will be less likely to focus on the hours that you’re working; they just want the 12-month success story.”

Morgan suggests looking for role models of part-time workers in senior level roles and getting some tips from them.

“My other big tip is to equip yourself with knowledge of the benefits of part-time working that are beyond your own personal benefits,” she says.

“There are organisational benefits and societal benefits, because more people, and more women in particular, will be able to contribute to the workforce and at a level that is in line with their skills and experience.”