This report considers the role that flexible working options can play in raising female employment rates, and reducing the number of women working below their skill level or who are underemployed in terms of hours, throughout Europe. It also assesses the extent and nature of demand for, and the challenges and opportunities of, flexible working practices.

The significant employment gap between men and women across Europe means that the continent's economies are failing to utilise their societies' full potential. Despite decades of increased participation and attainment in education among women, as well as improved legislative guarantees of maternity and parental leave, there remains significant room for improvement. On average across the 28 EU member states, the gap between male and female employment rates stood at 11.7 percentage points in 2013, and the female employment rate remained steady at around 62.5 per cent between 2008 and 2013.

The interplay of structural dynamics within economies and firms, government actions and regulation, and cultural developments have over time changed the nature of households and the supply of labour, and resulted in three undesirable employment outcomes for women.

  1. Low rates of female employment, which effects economic output.
  2. A high prevalence of women working below their 'qualification grade', which might have effects in terms of a sub-optimal allocation of skills across an economy.
  3. Underemployment in terms of hours – particularly a persistent yet variable gap in working hours between men and women across typical life phases, which raises issues of productivity, staff retention and recruitment costs at the level of the firm.

This report considers the role that flexible working options can play in addressing these adverse labour market outcomes. By assessing the extent and nature of demand for flexible work practices, we also point towards some of the challenges and opportunities that greater flexible working might offer, including the following findings.

  • Across countries, both part-time work and increased employee control over the scheduling of working hours can be associated with an increased female employment rate.
  • The concentration of part-time work outside of high-level jobs may increase the tendency for women to work in occupations below their skill level.
  • The prevalence of part-time work as the main flexible working option may be contributing to two problems: unnecessarily low average working hours among mothers during the early stages of parenthood, and mothers' average working hours remaining low during subsequent life-phases.
  • There is considerable demand for a larger range of flexible working options among working women. Our research suggests that giving employees more control over the scheduling of their working hours would be particularly popular.