There is a significant employment gap between men and women across Europe. This means that European economies are failing to utilise the full potential of their societies. 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. If we average across the 28 EU member states we find that:


  • the gap between male and female employment rates stood at 11.7 percentage points in 2013
  • the female employment rate remained steady at around 62.5 per cent between 2008 and 2013 (Eurostat 2014).

In seeking to identify the causes of weak employment outcomes for women, this report acknowledges the structural dynamics of economies and firms, the role of government and regulation, and cultural developments that over time have changed the nature of households and the supply of labour. The interplay of these pressures has resulted in three undesirable employment outcomes for women.

  1. Low rates of female employment, and their effect on economic output.
  2. The prevalence of women working below their ‘qualification grade’ and the effect this might have 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 will consider 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.

In light of these findings, we suggest that the continued expansion of part-time work is likely to help raise women’s employment rates further, and that there would be particular benefits to making more part-time working options available within higher-grade professional industries and jobs. However, expanded part-time work alone may not be enough to address the problems of women working reduced hours involuntary, and working in jobs that are below their skill grade. Expanded access to flexible work scheduling would be particularly beneficial to firms and employees alike, particularly those outside of the classic ‘professional’ sectors of European economies.