The Circular Trap: Women and Part-Time Work

Vicki Smith

In our “From the Archives” series, we take a step back to look at some of the best articles published in the BJS over the years. Vicki Smith published this article about women and part-time work in 1983 (Vol. 28) as a graduate student. Yet many of her insights still hold true today in the context of a financial crisis, the growth of part-time work, and the continuing rise of inequality in the United States.

Berkeley Journal of Sociology print volumes.

Part-time employment opportunities have been depicted as a beneficial option for women – offering them entry level access to the labor market while allowing them the flexibility to fulfill their roles in the home as wives an mothers.[1] It is assumed that workers in this type of employment experience choice and autonomy: one personnel study concludes that,

…making a choice about part-time employment may] contribute to the quality and dignity of working life, offering workers more control over their working time and the ability to accommodate personal and family needs as well as work needs. They permit workers to be treated as responsible adults, and they may increase job satisfaction.[2]

Seen as an option that opens the way to alternative structures of employment and lifestyles, even feminists have suggested structures of employment and lifestyles, even feminists have suggested that profound and long-range changes may take place with respect to a fundamental sexual division of labor that has historically situated women exclusively in the home. Accordingly, Ms. Magazine recently extolled part-time work as “a way of humanizing the workplace and promoting equality; of permitting men to spend more time at home and women more time at the office,”[3] assuming that men and women equally will take advantage of part-time employment opportunities.

This ideal depiction of voluntary choice obscures another reality: the reality that part-time work perpetuates the subordination of women in our society. In this paper, this reality is examined from two sides: from the perspective of changes in the occupational structure, and from women’s work in the household.

Part-time employment has emerged as a major labor market category for women only in recent years. It is a feature of a striking trend in women’s labor market activity: the rapid and massive increase in the labor force participation of married women and/or mothers. Since World War II the number of working mothers has increased more than tenfold. In 1950, the labor force participation rates of married women (husband present) including full- and part-time workers, was 22 percent; labor force participation rates for mothers (an overlapping category to be sure) in 1950 was 18 percent.[4] By March 1982, 59 percent of all mothers with children under 18 years of age (18.7 million mothers) were in the labor force; 50 percent of mothers with preschool children (7.4 million mothers) were working.[5] This growth compares to the broader increases in women’s labor force participation since World War II: in 1950, 32 percent of all women 14 and over worked, while in 1981, 62 percent of all women 18-64 years were workers.[6] The movement of married women and mothers into part-time jobs explains a significant proportion of this shift. In 1978, women with children under 15 represented 34 percent of single-job, part-time workers, while they made up only 12 percent of the full-time labor force.[7] In 1982, slightly under one-third of married women worked part-time. Currently, women constitute 66 percent of all part-time workers.[8]

The availability of part-time jobs does not fundamentally change women’s subordinate position within the family or the economy. Rather, women’s position becomes more firmly entrenched as a result of this labor market phenomenon.

In the following sections I focus on three phenomena. First, I introduce data concerning the proliferation of part-time jobs in which many married women and mothers work. I will illustrate that broad changes in the economy and the occupational structure led to the construction and growth of certain part-time jobs that are gender-specific. In this way, part-time work and the predominance of women in it, is an important aspect of the contemporary accumulation of capital. Second, given the availability of these jobs, I examine the element of choice for women workers. I will argue that the choices women make about part-time work in a patriarchal and capitalist society importantly reflect the material and ideological constraints of out sex-gender system. Finally, I argue against the prevailing belief that access to this type of wage-labor, in and of itself, will be followed by an alteration of women’s position in an historically rigid sexual division of labor.

Characteristics Of Part-Time Jobs: Demand

The growth in regular and temporary part-time employment opportunities has been marked: in 1954, the first year for which systematically compiled data on part-time work are available, 15 percent of all employees in non-agricultural industries worked part-time. According to 1982 data, this figure was 21 percent.[9] Indeed, various commentators have noted that deep and fundamental changes in the American economy will entail the continuation of this trend in part-time employment.[10]

Existing research on this trend is highly fragmentary. Articles in trade and management journals, and personnel policy studies tend to focus on a small fraction of the lucrative part-time jobs, such as those in the public sector, and in professional managerial jobs in the private sector.[11] Such literature praises the part-time option for its potential contribution to the qualitative enrichment of personal and working life. This optimistic representation of part-time work, however, obscures a very different experience shared by the vast majority of workers who engage in this type of employment. While the former are characterized by relatively high wages, pro-rated or regular benefits, relative control over schedules, and are often unionized, the majority of part-time jobs are located primarily in the lowest levels of the occupational structure, with respect to wages, skill and control.

The rise in part-time employment is intrinsically connected to the expansion of certain industries that are now primary sectors of employment in our economy. Most part-time work is a key feature of two sectors that currently have the fastest growth rates: the services and retail trade.[12] Indeed, these two sectors alone have provided over 70 percent of all new private jobs created from 1973 to 1980.[13] Various low-level occupations within these sectors (at the non-managerial, non-professional level) employ the largest percentages of part-time workers: for example, according to 1977 data, in the service industries 40.8 percent of total employees were part-time, while 30.6 percent of total employees in retail were part-time.[14] The third largest concentration of part-time employees is within the clerical occupation: here, part-time positions, distributed throughout different industries, constitute 24.7 percent of its total number of jobs.[15]

A significant proportion of the retail sales industry has been accounted for by the proliferation of fast-food eating establishments. Between 1962 and 1975 the percentage of part-time workers in these establishments rose from 32 percent to 51 percent.[16] In the retail food industry (composed of grocery stores, supermarkets, specialty food and fast-food stores) part-time employment rates rose from 40 to over 50 percent of the total work force between 1966 and 1977.[17] Temporary help industries, which hire part-time and temporary full-time workers out to other businesses, virtually exploded after World War II, from the employment of a few thousand people in 1946 to employing approximately 2 to 3 million people by 1974. Seventy percent of these temporary employees worked in clerical occupations.[18] Much temporary and part-time employment, then, falls within the secondary labor market and the lowest strata of the primary labor market.

Of necessity, demand forces shape the manner in which such shifts will be organized. One example of the breakdown of jobs into part-time shifts is that of jobs that are geared toward the production of services rather than goods, where there is a cyclic demand for output (in relation to daily business cycles), where job tasks are routine and discrete, and which are non-managerial.[19] This organization ensures the coordination of production with irregular demand. Theorists of organization and dual labor markets point out that employers and managers must strategize to buffer the production process from such inconsistencies: the entrenchment of part-time work schedules facilitates a fit between employee flexibility and fluctuating demand.[20]

Services and sales jobs illustrate this tendency well. Almost all such jobs in the low-skill, low-wage strata are organized to respond to daily or seasonal fluctuation. Certain hours during the operation of a firm are distinctly busier than others; thus employees are required to respond to the changing influx of customers. This is particularly evident in fast-food eating establishments and retail stores. (In many retail stores a further breakdown occurs in which workers are hired temporarily in correspondence with seasonal and/or holiday rushes.) In an effort to reduce, or if possible, to eliminate, unused human effort, workers are systematically removed from a shift when at all possible.

Part-time work in clerical occupations is similarly organized around fluctuation, yet the fluctuation in these shifts can be contained and pre-determined in a way that service work (organized around immediate consumer demand) cannot. So, for example, certain times of the month or year may predictably demand more labor than others. The variation in types of part-time employment are numerous, ranging from working regularly less than 35 hours per week, to being part of an internally regulated labor pool (available on-call in that company when needed), to the well-known “temporary help” arrangements offered by such agencies as “Manpower,” “Temporaries,” “Kelly Services” and so forth.

The temporary help services in many ways demonstrate the organization and logic of part-time work structures. The primary way in which temporary clerical workers are used is to employ them during periods of peak business activity, thus decreasing the need for regular employees to work overtime. Further, a growing recognition of the underutilization of full-time workers has contributed to structuring work schedules so that a minimum staff operates under normal conditions while temporaries are hired when the need arises. Companies save, on the average, 18 percent of employee costs, in large part due to the impressive advantage of saving the cost of fringe benefits to these workers.[21]

Temporary workers notwithstanding, regular part-time employment rates of clerical workers have also increased due to a rigorous tightening, or paring down of hours involved in specific jobs. For example, at J.C. Penney’s, a major department store chain, part-time clerical workers are used to cover peak periods of business activity. Many full-time positions have been cut in half to part-time positions in order to release more people for these periods. In addition, Penney’s has a “pool of people” to call when needed; thus, their temporary workers are company employees who are familiar with documents, office procedures and management. Personnel directors comment that productivity is greatly increased with the use of this system because, “After all… we have people here when we need them and they are not here when we don’t need them.”[22]

Part-time schedules in these ways are rational strategies designed to pare away at any element of waste and underutilization of labor. One full-time person may be augmented by a second or third person working two short overlapping shifts, rather than two or three full-time employees working a shift in which only one of them is busy for the entire period. Hence, any given job is fractionalized around the optimum utilization of necessary labor. The reduction of the wage bill for employers by paying for fewer total employee hours worked is thus a consequence of employing part-time workers.

Some industrial researchers maintain that part-time schedules are not cost-effective because of increased recruitment and training costs due to high turnover rates. This direct costs – as well as indirect costs such as organizational disruption, draining of management time and productivity losses – are argued to contribute to generally dysfunctional operations. However, the positive consequences of part-time employment and high turnover, although less quantifiable, receive less attention. For example, several personnel studies argue that two part-time workers tend to be more productive than one full-time worker, due to factors such as a reduction in fatigue, stress, “burnout,” etc., and that there are lower rates of absenteeism for part-time workers.[23] Measurement experts claim that, “Underutilization of full-time workers may be as high as 50 percent.”[24] Further, overtime will not be paid out to full-time workers; as part-timers take on excess work to be done, the level of continuous work for both full- and part-timers is intensified as the “padding” of any shift is trimmed. Policies regarding part-time workers are frequently predicated upon employees working less than a certain number of hours so that employers may withhold benefits. Finally, the continual turnover may be actively encouraged by employers in the secondary labor market to inhibit demands for increased wages and promotion.

The concentration of part-time jobs in the areas discussed implies female-specific demand. Sex-segregation within sales, services and clerical work is pronounced; they are overwhelmingly “women’s jobs.”[25] Wages for these jobs are the worst. Wages in service industries are the lowest for any type of non-agricultural work; retail sales work is the next lowest category, with clerical work following with wages that are eight to nine percent below the national average.[26] Part-time jobs in retail sales, service and clerical occupations resemble their full-time counterparts: they are primarily non-unionized; possibilities for promotion are low, if they exist at all; for the most part, they require little or no skill; and workers do not have access to fringe benefits such as company-paid health or retirement plans.[27] Statistics confirm the female-specific nature of part-time jobs more generally. Between 1968 and 1977 women accounted for four-fifths of the proportion of growth in part-time employment.[28] Indeed, 31 percent of all new employment for women since 1966 has been voluntary part-time.[29]

That these jobs are primarily women’s jobs, and that they are located in the lowest rungs of the labor market, suggest that part-time employment is an extension of occupational sex-segregation that continues to leave women in a severely disadvantaged position…

That these jobs are primarily women’s jobs, and that they are located in the lowest rungs of the labor market, suggest that part-time employment is an extension of occupational sex-segregation that continues to leave women in a severely disadvantaged position, and serves to heighten the exploitation of women as a source of cheap labor. Statistical forecasts confirm that our economy will experience vast growth rates in the dead-end (non-supervisory, temporary, part-time, non-unionized, low-wage) which employ primarily female labor.

What are some of the ideological and material conditions that legitimate the reproduction of this massive secondary status experienced by women in the part-time labor market? Common assumptions about part-time work and the employment of women dovetail neatly into prevailing notions about the “natural” relationship of women to the family, and about women’s secondary status as wage-laborers. This is cast in the ideology of the male, “family” wage. Men are viewed as the stable, primary wage-earners; their wages are purported to be adequate for the support of families. Further, women are seen as unpaid, home laborers. All women are structurally marginalized by this assumption. They are typically cast as secondary-income earners and are presumed to be workers for whom reduced working hours or fluctuations in employment due to slack business, recession, etc. are not as devastating as to men who are primary income earners. Women, it is expected, can fall back on the male, “family” wage.[30] This belief prevails despite the increasing numbers of women supporting themselves and dependents.[31] For this reason, the subsidiary and oftentimes temporary nature of part-time jobs does not appear to place women at a disadvantage.

Both mainstream supply and demand arguments incorporate these assumptions into accounts of the growth of a female-specific, part-time sector of jobs. Most supply arguments concerning the increase in part-time work in the last two decades rely on a one-sided explanation: it is simply due to the increased labor force participation of certain groups based both on their desire for work and on demographic changes. The case of married women and mothers clearly exemplifies this shift. One economist has suggested that,

…[the increase in part-time employment] is largely a result of an increase in labor force participation among the groups most likely to work part-time: married mothers.[32]

Certain lines of reasoning are employed in this framework of supply. Reference is made to historical demographic shifts in order to explain the massive entrance of married women and mothers in the labor force. Changes in fertility patterns, age of child-bearing, attitudes, burden of household work and so forth, give rise to the proposition that demographic changes have been causally primary in women’s increased labor force participation.[33]

Employers thus explain and legitimate part-time work policies by pointing out that married women desire and seek out flexible types of work schedules. Because of this reasoning, certain part-time jobs are explicitly typed around parental and marital status. Many employers organize jobs as “mothers ” jobs, arranging part-time shifts to coincide with school hours and school holidays. Some firms have instituted four to five hour shifts known as the “housewives” or “mothers” shifts, so that “the housewives can pick and choose which shifts they wish to work and which best fit in with their domestic needs.”[34] An interview with an assistant to the manager of personnel at a major department store in New York City proves illuminating in this respect:

We are developing four shifts: nine thirty to two thirty; eleven to three; three to seven; and five to nine. The early shifts are mainly young mothers with school kids. The three to seven are high school and college students and people who moonlight.[35]

For this reason employers and policy analysts view part-time work as a functional labor market mechanism for incorporating married women and/or mothers into the labor market. This employment is seen as an ideal utilization of workers who are “handicapped” in a variety of acceptable ways. For example, part-time schedules can be adapted to the demands of women who are constrained by the needs of their families.

The accommodation of women ‘s paid work to their domestic demands is taken as axiomatic in their labor force participation. The fact that they can only work part-time is viewed as natural; one management journal claims that,

A lot of the women are exhausted working four days after doing their homework. They could never work full-time.[36]

Further, part-time work is posited as being advantageous to women in that, since most part-time work does not require skilled labor, women are not handicapped by a lack of training or education. Theoretically, they “enjoy” access to this type of employment.

In the same vein, it is understood that teenagers cannot work full time jobs due to their school commitment; the elderly and the handicapped are less able to cope with full-time, strenuous work. From this perspective, part-time work is viewed as a functional labor market institution that accommodates the needs of technically disadvantaged and restricted groups of workers. People who work part-time are identified as being socially, psychologically or physically ill-prepared to work part-time:

People who hold (part-time) jobs are usually assumed to be intermittent workers without career ambitions, and the labor market has been structured accordingly.[37]

Thus the idea that part-time work is established to coincide with the defining characteristics of labor supply or the needs of particular groups has become an accepted explanation for this phenomenon. In other words, part-time jobs emerged as a labor market mechanism to meet the needs of an emerging group of workers. The benefits accorded to employers are overlooked in analyses extolling the benefits of part-time work for women.

Dual labor market theorists employ a functionalist framework of demand to explain the insertion of certain groups of people into part-time jobs. Piore and Doeringer, for example, argue that a part-time, fluctuating labor market is necessary for employers and managers to be able to meet unpredictable demand. This part-time fluctuation characterizes secondary labor market activity. Primary labor markets correspond to managed, stable demand forces, hence requiring a permanent, stable, full-time labor force. In this framework it naturally follows that people with tenuous commitments to work and personal reasons for being pushed and pulled out of the work force (such as mothers and housewives) will fit into the lower strata of jobs.

Descriptively, then, the relationship between workers who are handicapped on the full-time job market, and the emergence of employment opportunities that are flexible to these handicaps, is accurate and important. From the perspective of workers it is crucial to be able to make a choice regarding full- or part-time employment. As will be argued later, shorter work schedules may be the only way to obtain additional income for households, as well as a singular means that many women have to overcome the limited access to the labor market. Furthermore, job structures do adjust to accommodate different laboring populations. However, these arguments as currently formulated, are uncritical of the particular interlocking dynamics of capitalism and patriarchy. They leave unexamined the relationship between the changing structure of occupations – the increase in demand for a female-specific labor force – and the gender relations and household structures that shape and determine the employment choices that women make in the work world. Barrett argues that

…a model of women’s dependence h as become entrenched in the relations of production of capitalism, in the divisions of labor in wage work and between wage labor and domestic labor.[38]

It is the reproduction of this entrenchment that is illuminated by a more critical conceptualization of women’s part-time employment.

Household Strategies: Women’s Employment Choices

From the perspective of the household it has been increasingly difficult to maintain certain standards of living by relying on one wage – typically, the male “fami1y” wage. A second. source of income has virtually been necessitated by the increasing inflation of recent years. Indeed discussmg the impact of stagflation on the lives of working families, Currie Dunn and Fogarty suggest that the primary way in which living standards were maintained during the 1970’s by increasing the family labor pool:

…putting more family members to work has become the key coping strategy for broad segments of the working class.[39]

The struggle to maintain a reasonable living standard, while not the sole reason, surely has been one of the most pressing factors for the specific employment of married women and mothers outside the home in the last 20 years. In addition to inflation, ten percent plus unemployment and the indirect effects of “Reaganomics” trap and pressure family income and domestic work.

Women who are female heads of household are affected by the same structural pressures. For single mothers with secondary labor market status this is especially tough: state and federal cutbacks exacerbate the financial hardships of being the sole income earner in the family. Overall, women in and outside of families become trapped within the intersection of state policy, economic conditions and the labor market. The rescinding of federal and state supported services – both in terms of financial assistance and indirect services such as community and school activities for children, institutional care of older, ill and handicapped individuals – means that the care and reproduction of family members rebounds onto women’s shoulders, while the need for a second income in the household increases.

Given this need for greater income, it is important to understand why women choose to work part-time rather than full-time schedules. First, despite the fact that women and men engage in paid work, it is women who continue to bear the greatest responsibility for domestic work and child-care. Hartmann has pointed out that even women are working full-time, they end up doing the bulk of unpaid “home work.”[40] Clearly, with household work placing concrete parameters on one’s labor market participation, the greatest constraint on women’s labor market activity is the presence of children. Child-care, of all productive tasks in the home, is the least flexible: for mothers, decisions made about any type of activity generally revolve around child-care arrangements. For the woman who is earning low wages, her paid work is “cost-effective” only when her unpaid work – child-care, cleaning, food preparation, etc. – does not become too great an additional cost in her subsequent absence. Purchasing child-care (i.e., paid day care) would, in many cases, minimize the contributions made by women’s low wages; hence, women must arrange part-time work around the availability of non-paid child-care. For example, women juggle part-time work around school hours of children, and to some degree around husbands’ hours of work (women may be with children full-time during the day, and work part-time in the evenings when men are home); women may work seasonally (Christmas, summer) when older children may take care of younger children; or they may exchange child-care with neighbors and kin, working part-time around these hours. In such situations, women’s part-time employment is considered voluntary: they work part-time by choice. However, the choice made is circumscribed by household demands.

Certainly there are situations that involve women part-time workers whose decision to work fewer hours more closely approximates being one of non-constrained choice. This would occur primarily where the pooled family income is high enough-whether by a male “family” wage or via the wage of a woman earning higher wages as a worker in the primary labor market-that women may work flexible schedules of fewer hours. The important feature of such a situation is again the ability to pay for child-care from the total household income.[41] However, I argue that the majority of women part-time workers have highly constrained relationships to the labor market, vis. child-care costs and wages earned.

Several examples support this claim. Perhaps the strongest is the fact of extreme occupational segregation for all women, full- and part-time. Three out of four married women were employed in clerical, service, retail sales and operative work in 1978, strata of employment with the lowest wages for non-agricultural work.[42] The trap is a circular one, for if many women workers are employed part-time in these jobs, it is clear that women don’t earn enough to both contribute significantly to household income and cover paid child-care. Hence, job decisions must be made juggling domestic responsibilities with hours of paid work. Recent statistics on moonlighting provide more evidence for this thesis. Of women moonlighters (who comprise 30 percent of multiple jobholders in the U.S.) more than one-half had two part-time jobs. This has been attributed to the increased proportion of women who are primary income earners in their families.[43] This increase suggests great flexibility in the ways that women must arrange their paid work shifts to child-care responsibilities.

What does this limitation of choice mean concretely for women in their relationships to households? Clearly, having access to the labor market is important. Women make choices about bearing and rearing children, and about wanting to be their primary caretakers. They may prefer working part-time rather than full-time hours where part-time hours allow them greater flexibility with domestic work. In addition, access to part-time work may mean the difference between confinement to the home and having increased contact with the social, public world. Certainly, the fact that their income is necessary for household survival gives women, in relation to men in the family, more status in and power over decision-making. In this latter sense, the option to work part-time is an important one for mothers and married women who traditionally have had few alternatives to being full-time family workers.

Accordingly, the ideology about the benefits of part-time work for women expresses a certain reality. Yet I have argued that this ideology simultaneously obscures the reality of the paid and unpaid work of women. Only in the context of extremely limited options – i.e., women who are situated in a subordinate position within the sex-gender system of our patriarchal and capitalist society-can it be argued that contemporary part-time work opportunities are beneficial to women. Being “able” to engage in a combination of exploitative part-time employment and unpaid home work is a dubious privilege. Zillah Eisenstein rightly notes that,

…freedom of choice is always an inadequate model for those who do not have power. The choices have already been limited for them. [W]omen’s choices exist within the political context of the sexual division of labor and society which defines women’s primary role as mother.[44]

While this situation is not as extreme as the situation of women who must work fuJJ-time and handle family responsibilities, the phenomenon of part-time work represents a problematic and more hidden version of the hierarchical sexual division of labor. Part-time work is a concrete mechanism by which women’s dual role in reproduction and as a source of cheap labor is maintained. It is an ideal labor market response to a certain tension in sex-gender relations, as an important means by which women can participate in paid labor, and yet retain responsibility for the rearing and care of children and household.

Family and Work Intersections

The utilization of particular workers-in this case, married women and or mothers-in part-time work is, to a great degree, aided by the fact that they are structurally confined by their respective positions in the sex-gender system. A “system” of part-time work is accordingly reinforced by the social stratification external to, but analytically integral to, the realm of wage labor. In this way, the relationship of women to the home prevails. While the justification of this relationship may be tentative and ideologically constructed, its foundation is decidedly material: a woman’s position in the home is reinforced by her lower status in the secondary, part-time labor market. Women are able to bring supplementary and necessary income into the family in order to maintain consumption, and to leave the narrow confines of the home . Nevertheless, a sexual division of labor is kept intact insofar as women may still organize the maintenance and reproduction of individual family members.

The availability of part-time work opportunities has important implications for the politics of women’s labor market participation with respect to unionizing and demands for better wages and childcare arrangements . Given an entrenched ideology concerning the secondary work aspirations of women, there is far less chance of a challenge to the inequality existing between “women ‘s wages” and the male “family” wage. The possibility that women, individually or collectively, will demand higher wages or look to the state or employers for affordable day care facilities will be diminished as long as women can accommodate their paid to their unpaid work. This is especially pernicious given that the increased availability of part-time work is occurring in a context in which federal reductions in child-care programs are extreme. (The current federal budget calls for a 25 percent reduction in government-subsidized day care slots.)[45] These reductions are occurring at precisely the same time that mothers of pre-school children are the fastest growing segment of the labor force, with 66 percent of mothers of school age children currently working or looking for work.[46]

Possibilities for organizing around the issue of part-time work are undermined by the circular dynamics between part-time workers and the labor process itself. As has been demonstrated, women workers are subject to the worst conditions of employment, both in terms of wages and in access to skilled work. They are acknowledged to be a source of cheap labor and are readily hired for jobs which, by design, rely on the low cost of labor. Specifically, married women and mothers are highly desirable for part-time work because family restrictions increase the likelihood that they will accommodate themselves to employment of a limited scope. It should be added that the availability of part-time jobs undermines women’s long-run possibilities for establishing themselves as permanent members of the labor force. Intermittent, temporary employment structured around women’s family work prohibits them from developing the steady work record that would be valued by employers when women can finally join the labor force on a full-time basis.

Due to the nature of these jobs, this will be a transient, marginal labor pool with low expectations about or intent of challenging the structure of work. From the viewpoint of management they are ideal insofar as they do not and will not identify themselves as workers, with organized collective interests. Challenges are not made to the structured inequality of wages and benefits; yet, despite this inequality women will, at certain points in their working experience, want these jobs as their only viable work option. The constraints of the sex-gender system in essence reinforce the competitive, unskilled, transient characteristics of the secondary labor market.


I have argued that many employers need cheap, flexible labor for part-time work shifts, and that many individuals – in this case, women with primary household responsibilities – must seek out those very jobs. Hence, insofar as part-time work is often the most viable alternative for many women, it is a viability that has been acknowledged and embraced in the employment policies of businesses and firms. While the availability of these jobs is important to women in some respects, I have demonstrated that the secondary status women have in the part-time secondary labor market reinforces the economic dependence of women on men, as well as women’s primary work in household reproduction. Part-time work shifts reconcile the conflicting needs of employers for cheap labor and of the sex/gender system for women’s household/family labor.

What does this study suggest for change? At the most concrete level, policies that treat part-time workers differently from full-timers, such as hourly wage differentials, promotion possibilities, sick benefits and overtime policies – any way in which part-time workers are discriminated against because they work fewer hours – are targets for organizing. The excuse for such discrimination is frequently that real differences exist between full- and part-timers; such excuses only legitimate the practice of hiring part-timers to save money. Such discriminatory policies are being investigated, for example, in Britain, where in 1976 women were 85 percent of part-time workers.[47]

In addition, this discussion makes clear the importance of child-care for women today. Child-care stands as one of the most formidable issues influencing women’s labor market status and must be used as an organizing issue for working women’s organizations and trade unions that are unionizing women workers.

However, these strategies are problematic, as the phenomenon of part-time employment is structurally rooted in broader occupational and economic trends, and specific sex/gender arrangements. The expansion of part-time work cannot be attacked without understanding its connection to capitalist tendencies in general. As indicated earlier, most part-time jobs are located in sectors that are notorious for a lack of organizing and unionization. Further, as I have pointed out, the use of part-time women workers must be seen as a piece of a larger puzzle in which employers are striving for a cheap, exploitable labor force in the U.S. While the specific case of the utilization of women in part-time work has its own dynamic – particularly the factor of childcare, which will continue to circumscribe women’s paid work – the general case speaks to similar tendencies in labor process in advanced capitalism. In this light, teen-age part-time employment must be systematically analyzed, as well as the greater use of part-time workers in industries that have traditionally fought part-time schedules.[48] The increased use of part-time workers, as an employer strategy for increasing profits and exploiting workers must be understood in order to strategize about altering women’s position.

Furthermore, as long as women are primarily responsible for child-rearing and domestic work, these particular patterns in their labor market activity will be reinforced. Fundamental re-arrangements in the unequal gendered division of labor must occur in order for women to participate more freely in the labor market.

Part-time work may, one day, provide a liberating alternative to a rigid and oppressive sexual division of labor. However, the system of part-time work in our society does not provide that alternative. Indeed, as it stands, this system serves to strengthen the bond between women’s secondary economic status and their part in domestic reproduction. This is troublesome in our socio-economic and political environment. During a time of economic recession and moral-political conservatism, any mechanisms that serve to strengthen the sexual division of labor are suspect. The notion that part-time work is ideal, in “allowing” women to retain primary responsibility for children and home, obscures an important mechanism which reproduces women’s subordination.

References and Footnotes

  1. Accordingly, the overwhelming majority of part-time workers in the US are women who are classified as voluntarily working fewer hours. The category of part-time work consists of those workers who work part-time by choice: choice here refers to voluntary or non-economic reasons which people have fore working under a specified number of hours of days. Involuntary part-time refers to people who prefer to work full-time; they work part-time either because they are unable to find full-time work or for other involuntary reasons. Most people fall into the voluntary part-time work category. W. Deutermann and S. Brown: “Voluntary part-time workers: A growing part of the labor force.” Monthly Labor Review, June 1978. E. Bayefsky: “Women and the status of part-time work: A review and annotated bibliography.” Ontario Library Review, Vol. 61, #2, June 1977.
  2. S. Nollen and V. Martin: Alternative Work Schedultes. p. vi. parts 2 and 3, American Management Association, (N.Y.) 1978.
  3. A. Korpivaara: “Will Men Legitimate Part-Time Work?” Ms., May 1981.
  4. V. Oppenheimer: The Female Labor Force in the U.S. Population Monograph Series, #5, University of CA, Berkeley, 1970.
  5. 20 facts on Women Workers, U.S. Dept. of Labor, Office of the Secretary. Women’s Bureau, 1982.
  6. Womanpower, National Manpower Council. (N.Y.: Columbia University Press) 1957. Ibid. 20 Facts on Women Workers.
  7. J. Owen: “Why part-time workers tend to be in low-wage jobs.” Monthly Labor Review, June 1978.
  8. Calculated from Employment and Earnings, Table A-29, U.S. Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dec. 1982.
  9. Deutermann and Brown, op. cit. and figures calculated from Employment and Earnings, Table A-29, U.S. Dept. of Labor, Dec. 1982.
  10. See especially E. Rothschild: “Reagan and the Real America.” New York Review of Books, Feb. 5, 1981. See also H. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. (N.Y.: Monthly Review Press) 1974.
  11. Cf. B. Teriet: “Flexiyear schedules: only a matter of time.” Monthly Labor Review, Dec. 1977. J. Hedges: “Flexible schedules: problems and issues.” Monthly Labor Review, Feb. 1977. J. Hartley: “Experience with flexible hours of work.” Monthly Labor Review, May 1976.
  12. Cf. Deutermann and Brown, op. cit., p. 6. Owen, op. cit. R. Bednarzik and D. Klein: “Labor force trends: A synthesis and analysis.” Monthly Labor Review, Oct. 1977. Also, R. Bednarzik: “Involuntary part-time work: a cyclical analysis.” Monthly Labor Review, Sept. 1975.
  13. Rothschild, op. cit., p. 12.
  14. Deutermann and Brown, op. cit., p. 8.
  15. Ibid., Table 3.
  16. R. Carnes and H. Brand: “Productivity and new technology in eating and drinking places.” Monthly Labor Review, Sept. 1977.
  17. J. Carey and P. Otto: “Output per unit of labor input in the retail food industry.” Monthly Labor Review, Jan. 1977.
  18. M. Gannon: “A profile of the temporary help industry and its workers.” Monthly Labor Review, May 1974. R. Leone and D. Burke: “Women returning to work and their interaction with a temporary help service.” Temple University: Center for Labor and Manpower Studies, May 1976.
  19. M. Piore and P. Doeringer: Internal Labor Markets and Manpower Analysis, (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath and Co.) 1971.
  20. Nollen and Martin, op. cit.; See R. D. Barron and G. Norris: “Sexual Divisions and the Dual Labor Market”, in Dependence and Exploitation in Work and marriage, D. Barker and S. Allen (eds.). (London and New York: Longman) 1976.
  21. Gannon, op. cit., p. 48.
  22. G. Tevernier: “New deal for part-time workers.” International Management, Vol 34, #10, Oct. 1979. P. 41.
  23. Nollen and Martin, op. cit. See also I. Kesner and D. Dalton: “Turnover benefits: The other side of the ‘costs’ coin.” Personnel, Sept./Oct. 1982.
  24. Gannon, op. cit., p. 47.
  25. cf. L. Howe, Pink Collar Workers, (Avon Books) 1977. Table: "Percentage of Female Workers in Selected Occupations."
  26. U.S. Working Women: A Databook, U.S. Dept. of Labor Bulletin, 1977. Table 36.
  27. Rothschild, op. cit.
  28. Deutermann and Brown, op. cit., pp. 4-5.
  29. Owen, op. cit.
  30. V. Beechey: "Some notes on female wage labour in Capitalist Production," Capital and Class, Autumn 1977, #3.
  31. 20 Facts on Women Workers, op. cit. See also D. Pierce and H. Mcadoo: "Women and Children: Alone and in Poverty." Center for National Policy Review, Catholic University Law School, Washington, D.C.
  32. N. Barrett: "Women in the Job Market: Unemployment and Work Schedules," in R. Smith (ed.), The Subtle Revolution. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute, 1979.
  33. cf. Oppenheimer, op. cit.
  34. Tevernier, op. cit., p. 10.
  35. Howe, op. cit., p. 78.
  36. Tevernier, op. cit., p. 44.
  37. Barrett, op. cit., pp. 84-85.
  38. Michele Barrett: Women's Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis. (London: Verso) 1980.
  39. E. Currie, R. Dunn and D. Fogarty: "The New Immiseration: Stagflation, Inequality and the Working Class." Socialist Review, vol. 10, #6, Nov.-Dec. 1980.
  40. H. Hartmann: "The Family as the Locus of Gender, Class and Political Struggle". Signs, vol. 6, #31, 1981.
  41. G. Stromstein: "Part-time work as a labor market phenomenon." Working Paper, Institute for Samfunnforskning, Oslo, Norway, 1981.
  42. B. L. Johnson: "Marital and family characteristics of the labor force." Monthly Labor Review, March 1979.
  43. E. Sekscensky: "Women's share of moonlighting nearly doubles during 1969-1979." Monthly Labor Review, May 1980.
  44. Z. Eisenstein: "The State, the Patriarchal Family and Working Mothers." Kapitalistate, #8, 1980.
  45. B. Ehrenreich and K. Stallard: "The Nouveau Poor." Ms.. Aug. 1982.
  46. L. Cole-Alexander, "Working mothers in greater numbers are in need of child-care services", in Women and Work: News from the U.S. Dept. of Labor, Jan. 1983.
  47. "Women Workers: 1980." Report for 1979-1980 of the TUC Women's Advisory Committee and Report of the 50th Women's Conference, March 1980. p. 30. A. Sedley: "Part-time workers and full-time rights." National Council for Civil Liberties, 1980. V. Beechey and T. Perkins: "Part-timers first jobs to be cut." Rights, vol. 5, #6.
  48. Full-time workers in industries suffering from the recession are frequently faced with accepting part-time shifts as an alternative to widespread layoffs. These workers fall in the involuntary part-time work category. We may be seeing a great increase in this category in the near future. The fact most often cited as contributing to qualification as an involuntary, part-time worker is "slack work or material shortage." It is worth expanding this qualification at length, primarily because it seems to place these workers in some type of residual category with respect to crisis conditions. In fact, data for the category of involuntary part-time workers, who usually would work full-time, has risen from 2.6 percent of the work force to 4.8 percent. "Slack work is any suspension of full-time pay status because of lack of orders, model change-overs, taking inventory, plant breakdowns, shortages of materials and seasonal or temporary slowdowns, and is often associated with economic downturns. In 1978, 6.4 million persons or 64 percent of those who worked part-time involuntarily named this as their reason for doing so. Workers in this category were usually employed at full-time jobs during the balance of the year (83 percent). The majority were men (61 percent), were primarily between the ages of 25 and 54 (59 percent) and were blue-collar workers (59 percent). The remaining 3.7 million worked part-time involuntarily because that is all they could find. They were most likely to be usually employed at part-time jobs (72 percent), women (62 percent), 16-24 years old (53 percent) and white-collar and service workers (70 percent)." S. Terry: "Involuntary part-time work: the new information from the CPS." Monthly Labor Review, Feb. 1981.