Why do women favour working in the public sector?

Research carried out by Birkbeck’s Dr Pedro Gomes and Professor Zoë Kuehn from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid aims to understand why women self-select to the public sector.

The public sector is a large employer, accounting for between 10 and 35 percent of total employment in OECD countries. In most countries, the public sector hires disproportionately more women than men. With my colleague Zoë Kuehn, I developed a model to try and understand this imbalance.

Through the lens of our model, we view the gender bias in public employment as driven by supply, meaning that it is not the government that acts explicitly to hire more women, but it is women that choose the public sector more so than men. Our objective was to better understand this selection, in particular, how much of it is explained by public sector job characteristics that are related to management, organization and human resource practices in the public sector.

We documented gender differences in employment, transition probabilities, hours, and wages in the public and private sector using microdata for the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Spain. We then built a search and matching model where men and women could decide whether to participate and whether to enter private or public sector labor markets. Running counterfactual experiments, we quantified whether the selection of women into the public sector was driven by: (i) lower gender wage gaps and thus relatively higher wages for women in the public sector, (ii) possibilities of better conciliation of work and family life for public sector workers, (iii) greater job security in the public compared to the private sector, or (iv) intrinsic preferences for public sector occupations.

A natural explanation for the gender bias in public employment could be that certain types of jobs that are predominantly carried out by the government could be preferred by women. However, our research revealed that, for the US, the UK, and France, once we exclude health care and education, women’s public employment is still 20-50% higher than men’s. Interestingly enough, the gender bias is less pronounced within public health care and public education compared to other branches of public employment.

Regarding transition probabilities, we estimated that the probability of moving from employment to inactivity is higher for women, but we found this probability to be significantly lower for public sector workers.

We also provided evidence that gender wage gaps and working hours are lower in the public sector. Individuals holding full time jobs in the public sector work between 3-5% fewer hours compared to similar individuals holding full time jobs in the private sector. However, fewer working hours are just one aspect of a better work-life balance (next to additional sick days, holidays, flexibility to work from home, employer provided child care etc.). In our model we wanted to capture differences in work-life balance across sectors in an ample sense, and hence we do not use these estimates to identify any parameters. Nevertheless, our results on fewer working hours in the public sector support the claim of a better work-life balance in the public compared to the private sector.

The results of our research suggest that women’s preferences explain 20 percent of the gender bias in France, 45 percent in Spain, 80 percent in the US, and 95 percent in the UK. The remaining bias is explained by differences in public and private sector characteristics, in particular relatively higher wages for female public sector workers that explain around 30 percent in the US and Spain and 50 percent in France. Only for France and Spain do we find work-life balance to be an important driver that explains 20 to 30 percent of the gender bias. Higher job security in the public sector actually reduces the gender bias because it is valued more by men than by women.

Further Information:

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Managing the ‘always on’ culture – a myth buster and agenda for better practice

Professor Almuth McDowall (Department of Organizational Psychology) shares her research into worklife balance and calls on employers to take responsibility for their organisation’s culture.

Break, Business, Business People, Businesswoman, Cafe

There is much being written and said about the ‘always on culture’ and how we are increasingly glued to our digital devices – whether at work or at home. Some of my own research has also concerned itself with this topic. My colleague and friend Gail Kinman and I had the results from a practice survey published in 2018 as we wanted to know what organisations are doing about the changing world of work, and the use of information and computer technology.

Well, precious little is the answer. Over half of our respondents said that their organisations don’t have a relevant policy in place and don’t offer any guidance or training. Somewhat worryingly over 40% thought that it should be up to individuals to manage the issue, rather than their line managers or human resources.

Why would people choose to be ‘always on’ outside formal working hours?

Working unpaid during leisure time does not make logical sense! We gift the UK economy billions in unpaid overtime year on year, as research by the Trade Unions Congress has revealed. Our systematic review with colleagues Svenja Schlachter, Ilke Inceoglu and Mark Cropley pointed to a complex picture.

People have different motivations, influenced by issues such as what everyone else does (social norms), what the expectations in the job are, how committed people feel to their job, how they value ‘switching off’ and recovery and whether this is supported in their environment. One key issue which came out of this review is the ‘empowerment enslavement paradox’. Our digital devices are both an enabler, as they afford flexibility, but also ‘digital leash’ as it’s difficult to say ‘enough is enough’ and switch off. As we all know, screen-time can be very seductive.

Is there any evidence that being ‘always on’ is bad for our health?

A recent econometric analysis shows that ICT infrastructure has a positive impact on population health (the authors measured general health outcomes such as infant mortality etc.). Regarding the impact of social media use, there is evidence that high use is linked to poor sleep quality, anxiety depression and low self-esteem. Of course, such studies cannot tell us whether teenagers who are highly anxious to start off with are more likely to be prolific users.

There is far less robust evidence on the exact effects from the world of work – what happens to you if you are on your phone, tablet or laptop near 24/7? We lack good research to tell us what the exact effects are.

What we do know though is that we need recovery and respite, our systems are simply not programmed to be on continuous overdrive. We also know that leisure activities which are quite different from our work tasks are better for our recovery than doing more of the same. I take this to heart. For instance, I find that reading at night doesn’t help me switch off as academics read rather a lot at work, so I take ballet classes online (and am known to teach the odd one myself!), knit and crochet.

What can organisations do?

Employers have a duty of care and should ensure that people are not overworked and can switch off. Worklife balance research tells us that those who live ‘enriched’ lives have better mental and physical health, important for them, and important for their employer. We should actively support employees by ensuring that:

  • A worklife balance policy is in place as a point of reference; then check processes and structures against this policy
  • Employers review job design and ensure that digital tasks (checking and responding to emails, synchronising devices, remote calls and conferences) are actually captured in people’s workload and tasks – these often fall off the radar
  • There is consultation to ask employees what they need – mutually negotiated boundaries and solutions work much better. Think creatively about flexible solutions!
  • Everyone, including senior leaders and managers, role models good behaviours. People need time to switch off, so don’t expect your staff to be available outside normal working hours
  • Staff are offered training and development. Managing in an increasingly digital workspace requires up-to-date management and leadership skills
  • Employees look out for implicit expectations and ‘rumours’. “I check my emails on holiday because this is what is expected of me”. Really? Question such assumptions as they can often take on a life of their own

Finally, if in doubt, ask a psychologist. The Department of Organizational Psychology is keen to work with organisations to establish, consolidate and evaluate best practice.

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Critical Work Placements

This post was contributed by Dr Sophie Hope, Lecturer in Arts Management in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.

Critical_Work_Placements_logoToday, students and graduates are expected to be nurturing their entrepreneurial selves; moulding themselves into the brand that will appeal to prospective clients or employers. Students are often pressured by tutors and peers to carry out extra-curricula voluntary activities to help improve their ‘employability’. Universities are taking their responsibility in producing work-ready students more and more seriously by revamping careers advice, embedding work placements and offering recruitment services. The purpose and nature of university education is changing.

The situation in the creative industries

In the creative industries and arts sectors, employers offering regular or permanent jobs are few and far between, rather, students embark on a flexible, freelance, portfolio career which in reality involves a lack of separation between work and non-work, no pension, no sick-pay or other employment rights. Because the work is supposedly creative and you are ‘doing what you love’, you are expected to express gratitude and enthusiasm for the ‘opportunity’ to be entering into such a career path. A love of and commitment to the work is often used as an excuse for little or no pay. Within the context of academic study, ‘employability’ is often approached uncritically and in a vacuum, disconnected from the theory, history and politics of the changing realities of work. This is happening in a context where enquiring minds are supposedly being nurtured. Critical, independent thinking practiced in the university and efficient project management and communication skills expected in the job market have a difficult, contradictory relationship. Welcome to the world of credited work placements.

The fragmented career structures of graduates together with this disconnect between employability and critical thinking advocated by the academy were both triggers for my colleague Lorraine Lim and I to think about how work and education intersected in a university context.

Unequal access to work placements

Through our research, which led to the Critical Work Placements resource, we found that employability is a luxury not all students can afford. Indeed, students undertaking placements tend to be a self-selected group who are motivated, engaged and in the case of self-organised placements, are also expected to be confidently networked so as to know who to contact and how. Our research aimed to explore what a ‘serious, ethical, substantive academic’ period of work experience might look like for students, tutors and employers in the arts, and if this is at all possible. The resulting ethical tripartite agreement, developed with students, hosts and tutors, is a practical toolkit of flow diagrams and recommendations for students, host organisations and placement tutors working in higher education.

The case studies we looked at demonstrated a spectrum of approaches, from students self-organising their own placements to tutors working with partner organisations to ‘marry’ students to specific projects. The reasons for this range of approaches depended on the learning objectives of the course and resources available to the tutors to act as brokers and ‘relationship managers’ between hosts and students. While this diverse range of approaches is necessary because of the specifics of each course, it was pointed out that some support for those students who are not networked or confident in approaching potential hosts should be supported by the tutor, although it is recognised that this has resource implications for the department. Based on our review of existing literature, we found that well informed students and courses that explicitly connect the concepts, theories and realities of employability through practical experience and academic, critical reflection are perhaps a way forward.

There is increasing pressure from both students and managers in higher education to provide credited work placements, but the realities of placing students in organisations to carry out a specific project related to their academic learning is becoming more difficult. While there are some funded programmes supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access placements, those students who do not qualify for this support but cannot afford to take up unpaid work placements continue to be at a disadvantage. The sector remains distinctly un-diverse. Placements are often reliant on the goodwill of people in those organisations who decide to invest their precious time and resources to provide necessary support to the student. Similarly, well-run credited placement programmes involve significant work-load for tutors and unless a university can provide the necessary paid staff-time to support students, running such programmes might be detrimental to their reputation and sustainability.

Writing about the proliferation of credited work placements in the US, Ross Perlin writes that “universities are falling over themselves to outsource their students’ education and lend credibility to illegal employment practices”. He provides examples of credited placements which involve envelope stuffing and leafleting. In the development of the Critical Work Placements website we took the position that students carrying out work that is far removed from their academic experience should be paid. Where students are paying to carry out work experience through university fees, the payoff has to be a rigorous, critical, reflexive, well-supported learning experience. It was recognised that placement students are not workers and that the placement is part of a broader, formal learning process, the outcomes of which will depend on what skills and learning the student wants to get out of it in relation to the course they are studying. The need to strike this practice/academic balance is central to the debate over credited work placements. This resource aims to provide a framework for that debate which students, hosts and tutors are invited to engage in.

Further reading:

  • Equality Challenge Unit. 2010. Work Placements in the Arts and Cultural Sector: Diversity, Equality and Access. London: Equality Challenge Unit/ Institute for Policy Studies London Met.
  • Perlin, R. 2011. Intern Nation. How to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy. London: Verso.
  • Yorke, M. 2003. Employability in higher education: what it is – what it is not. London: Higher Education Academy.
  • Barrow, R., Behr, C., Deacy, S., McHardy, F. and Tempest, K., 2010. “Embedding Employability into a Classics Curriculum: The Classical Civilisation Bachelor of Arts Programme at Roehampton University.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Vol. 9, p. 339-352.
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Unpacking the Triple Helix: Universities, industry and government

This blog was contributed by Helen Lawton Smith, Professor of Entrepreneurship, Director, Centre for Innovation Management Research, Department of Management, Birkbeck.

Nearly 300 people — academics, policymakers and business practitioners — from 35 countries attended the beginning of the 2013 Triple Helix International Conference yesterday.

Why did they travel from across the globe to the three-day event hosted in Bloomsbury by the Big Innovation Centre, Birkbeck and UCL?

The first answer is that they came to be part of the debate on the conference theme: The triple helix in a context of global change: continuing, mutating or unravelling? The conference engages with the challenges for each of the three component spheres, of the triple helix model — universities, industry and government — as they co-innovate to solve global economic and social challenges. Discussions focused on  different contexts and ways of building an ‘enterprising state.’

The second is that they came to network. This is the best bit of every conference. Who knows who you will sit next to on the river cruise, at the dinner at Lincoln’s Inn or in a parallel session or workshop?

The third answer is that they came to hear outstanding speakers. They came to listen to the originators of the Triple Helix metaphor, Henry Etzkowitz and Loet Leydesdorff, and David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, and Will Hutton, the political economist and writer. They also wanted to hear from other distinguished keynote speakers from high-profile organisations, including the European Commission, the OECD, Unilever, EDF, GlaxoSmithKline,  about the relevance of the triple helix model to their thinking and practice.

What three things will they have learned?

1.That the triple helix model is continuing to be central to the economic, social and technology policy agenda in many countries of the world, such as Brazil and Russia, and to international bodies, such as the European Commission’s Europe 2020 Smart Specialisation agenda. Alongside this is an increasing interest in how the impact of actions which follow from the agenda can be mapped, measured and evaluated in order to identify baselines for policy decisions.

2.That the model is not so much mutating but changing the forms it takes in the relationships between actors. Its inter-relationships are key to businesses, such as Unilever. In the cloud industry the basis of innovation in the market place is changing and requires a ‘convergence of capabilities’.  Whether this counts as ‘open innovation’ is a debate that will continue long after this conference. An emphasis on the broader role of universities in the economy includes employability, an agenda which links all three of the spheres. This can take the form of entrepreneurship education, both formal through teaching programmes and through student and alumni support such as Birkbeck’s Enterprise Hub, and the mentoring programmes organised by Birkbeck’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Andrew Atter,  based in the Centre for Innovation Management Research in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics.  Professor David Latchman, Birkbeck’s Master, is himself an entrepreneur and believes that there should be more entrepreneurship.

Changing forms present challenges including the ever-present need for finance for entrepreneurs and innovation, and for universities to maintain their standards and diversify their activities to be more responsive to society’s needs.

3.The triple helix model is also a political agenda. It takes a variety of meanings depending on context for each of the three spheres in an uncertain world, nationally, regionally and locally. Whether the model will unravel will depend on how mismatches between the institutional arrangements in each of the three spheres are resolved. The coordination problems are considerable.  Moreover, it is an issue of prioritisation. How the different stakeholder interests fit with the increasing pressures on universities to recruit students and  enhance their learning experiences is a question yet to be answered.

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