99-016 (Part-Time Work)
Distributed September 8, 1999
For Immediate Release
News Service Contact: Kristen Cole

Institutional barriers discourage part-time work as balance to family life

Lack of policies, threats to partnership status, and stigma are among the barriers to part-time work arrangements in radiology, according to a Brown sociologist. These hurdles mainly affect young women seeking to balance work and family.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Despite increasing numbers of women entering the formerly male bastion of medicine, institutional barriers discourage the part-time work arrangements favored by those seeking to balance work and family, according to a study led by a Brown sociologist who researches gender differences in labor.

In a two-year study of radiologists, Chloe E. Bird found those who sought part-time work faced a lack of policies, threats to achieving and maintaining partnership status, and stigma from colleagues.

"The clockwork of male careers has not traditionally allowed for alternative career paths," said Bird, assistant professor of community health and sociology, who presented the findings at the recent annual American Sociological Association conference. "It is the type of barrier still faced by highly educated professional women in the workplace."

Radiology was an ideal medical specialty in which to examine organizational supports and barriers because radiologists tend to work shorter, more predictable hours than other medical specialties such as surgery, said Bird.

In her survey of 1,211 radiologists between August 1997 and February 1999, 28.5 percent of the women worked part-time, compared to 5.9 percent of the men. Women reported working part-time in order to attend to family or child care responsibilities; men reported using it as a transition to retirement.

In addition, detailed interviews with radiologists at 82 practices found that only 10 had any kind of formal policy regarding part-time work. That surprised researchers, who had expected practices to have policies because of medical liability issues and their arrangement as partnerships, said Bird.

Without part-time work policies, only certain work arrangements were deemed acceptable by employers. Administrators from three of the 82 practices stated explicitly that their practices would offer part-time work options only as a transition to retirement, not to balance work and family. When part-time work was allowed to balance work and family, the radiologists were frequently perceived as "getting away with something." This perception was a barrier to obtaining and retaining partnership status, said Bird.

Without formal policies, many radiologists may find it difficult to negotiate part-time work arrangements and those who do may be vulnerable to exploitation, she said.

However the current trend toward larger practices, which is the result of increased competition and mergers, may allow more opportunities for part-time work arrangements. Practices in the study that were part of a larger structure were more likely to have part-time radiologists.

Regardless of the practice, radiologists also faced a general lack of understanding from colleagues when they sought part-time arrangements to balance work and family. Male radiologists tended to have wives who stayed at home, and therefore they did not understand the motivation, Bird said. Female radiologists generally had husbands who also worked.

"Is there room for women to work and have families even when they do not have stay-at-home husbands?" Bird asked. "This question must be addressed throughout the medical profession."

The study was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation initiative to examine alternative career paths. It was conducted in conjunction with Martha E. Lang at Brown University; Jocelyn Chertoff, M.D., at Dartmouth Medical School; and Benjamin Amick, at the New England Medical Center.