Timed out? Gender, working-time patterns and disadvantage in professional self-employment

Meetingby Steve Vincent

Common sense suggests professional self-employment is liberating, for women in particular. Women are more likely to choose to work reduced hours when self-employed because they bear the burden of domestic responsibilities. As a consequence, careers that promise flexibility can be attractive.

Arguably, self-employed professionals can take control of their working time by spacing contracts with clients. As their work is typically mobilised by technology, they can often choose when and where they work. As a result, they can escape the long-hours culture typical of professional work and pattern their working lives to suit their personal interests.

In short, if employment fails to deliver suitable working patters, self-employed professionals can go their own way.

My recent research questions this common sense view by exploring the practices of self-employed human resources (HR) consultants. The research indicates that self-employed consultants who chose to work fewer hours experienced some fairly intractable forms of disadvantage. Here’s why.

Let’s start with the fact that these HR consultants needed to develop and maintain a network of useful social connections to access clients. Useful networks connections could be with clients, who could recommend HR consultants to other people in their networks. They could also be with other HR professionals and other professionals who know about the clients of HR consultants.

The important thing to note is that these networks created opportunities to connect with new clients.

Clients were not all the same. Many clients were the owners of small businesses who needed occasional and basic HR services, which HR consultants described as less well paid “bread and butter” work. Larger clients demanded more complex and bespoke services, and this work was described as much more lucrative.

In this context, the most useful connections were between people who trusted one another. This is because trust enables agreements about future work when the client is uncertain about the quality of their needs. The development and maintenance of trust was the foundation for contracting with larger clients.

Developing trust required the HR consultants to convince their connections that they had the personal resources (such as skills, time and social connections) to deliver on contracts. We might ask, then, whether HR consultants with less time for work, developed trust and demonstrated personal credibility in the same way as their “time-rich” equivalents.

Unfortunately, HR consultants with time constrains could become trapped in alternative, typically less lucrative and prestigious approaches to developing and using social connections.

Imagine a working mom decides to go self-employed after a successful career as a highly able HR executive. Before kids she had a prominent role in a local HR professional forum, so she also has an established network of contracts. Her partner is a corporate lawyer who is a slave to his work. He routinely works 60 hour weeks. Our working mom, then, drops the kids at school around 8.30 and then collects them at 5pm.

With this daily routine we might assume that she has the time, skills and connections needed to deliver a complex and bespoke piece of work for a client? Well, this may be the case, but the more pertinent question is whether she would be likely to win the contract to deliver that work.

Consider large corporate clients and other professionals, who might refer this HR consultant to work. They are business owners, senior HR managers, solicitors and accountants, who are typically very busy with other matters during the 9-to-5 five-day-week routine.

As a consequence the large – and more lucrative – corporate clients are available to meet HR consultants at certain times. They are available outside of normal office hours. They are available at “networking events”, which are often organised in at breakfast, lunch or dinner by institutions that support local businesses.

The problem is that our working mother will struggle to make a lot of these networking opportunities. This means she may struggle to build and maintain trust with larger clients and other professionals. These people have to “see you about” and “get to know you” before they will trust you, contract with you directly or refer work to you. As a consequence, those with working time constraints can struggle to build and maintain useful social connections.

There are other ways for our self-employed HR mum to find work. She can build trust with a few “middle-men” (and they are more likely to be men) and rely on them for opportunities. She can pay “kick-backs” and “referral fees” to other professionals and HR consultants for access to clients. She can go through employment agencies, who typically top-slice the rewards offered.

But these alternative routes into self-employment come at a cost.

There is the loss of income to fees and agency costs. There are also reputational costs associated with operating through these alternative routes to self-employment. Using agencies and “middle men” rarely results in access to prestigious work. It is more likely to be “bread and butter” work, and this reduces “bragging rights”. Other HR consultants, who might also provide referrals to work, are likely to cream-off the best work for themselves. Why shouldn’t they?

It seems that HR consultants who struggle to align their own lives with their environments are at distinct disadvantage, even if they have the personal resources to deliver complex and bespoke contracts, and this can have wider social and economic costs where skills remain underutilised.

So, what can be done about this? Well, it’s easier said than done to request that time-poor consultants get savvy about their networking practices. They are often all too aware that their availability for work limits their career success.

This situation needs affirmative action to make a difference. Self-employed professional women need to get organised. Their professional associations need to get more serious about serving their female clients.

One realisable goal may be to find new ways of offering market signals to potential clients. If clients understood the qualities of resources available, they might change their purchasing behaviours.

Steve Vincent is Professor of Work and Organisation at Newcastle University. This article summarizes findings from the paper “Bourdieu and the gendered social structure of working time” in Human Relations.

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