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Can you work part-time and still reach the top?

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It has long been assumed that the only way to succeed in your career is by putting in long hours and forsaking any kind of life. Yet nowadays this is simply not the case. There are many senior level professionals like myself who work part-time, for a variety of reasons, and have still been able to forge successful careers. 

However, part-time work is not without its challenges and for many firms there is still a long way to go until they get the balance right. Many people I know who work part-time are required to cram a full working week into shorter hours, still answer calls and emails during their time off and get paid pro rata for the privilege.

The challenges of ‘having it all’

I recently attended a Women in Partnership event, hosted by Ambition, where we discussed the reasons why a large number of women who return to work after maternity leave on a part-time basis end up leaving their job a short time afterwards and take a career break to raise their children. Often, the intense pressure of fitting a normal working week into less hours and juggling the demands of a home and children (and often a partner as well) just isn’t sustainable.

We discussed how many women with strong skills sets are dropping out of the employment market for several years as they have no choice but to put their career aspirations on hold. It seems that no matter what message we are sold, the reality is that, unless you are a superwoman with a lot of help and support at home, ‘having it all’ often just isn’t possible. 

Yet it can be possible, with the right support

This doesn’t have to be the case for everyone if employers are willing to be flexible and supportive. Take the story of one Partner at the event as an example, who explained that when she fell pregnant, her boss (who happened to be male) had been understanding of her situation. Before her maternity leave started, he told her that he believed she had the ability to reach Partner level and that he would put her on a fast track to partnership on her return from maternity leave.

Initially, she felt that this would be unmanageable until her boss assured her that her client portfolio would be reduced to a size that would be manageable on a 4 day week. He explained that although she might occasionally have to take a phone call on a Friday, this would be the exception rather than the norm. 

The lady in question returned to work and made partnership whilst maintaining her 4 day week and not breaking under the pressure of an unmanageable workload and unrealistic expectations. The company was able to retain and grow a talented partner and the loyalty felt by the individual was immense - indeed, she remains with them until this day. 

A positive story which demonstrates that with the right support, a happy medium can be reached. 

However, let us ask ourselves this:

Is it really the fault of our employers if part-time working doesn’t work out? Or are unrealistic expectations and demands that we part-time workers put on ourselves the real problem, feeling guilt at not being at home and guilt at not being in the office?

In an age where we are connected to the workplace 24/7 through mobile phones, emails, LinkedIn, social media etc. isn’t it already enough of a challenge for full-time senior level professionals to only work during their core office hours, let alone part-time workers? 

I would be interested to hear your thoughts. 

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