A shorter working week – what about women?

Debates on introducing a shorter working week surface from time-to-time in political agendas, with arguments that it would increase productivity and well-being, reduce unemployment and support more sustainable lifestyles. This concept is not new: in 1995, Rifkin’s influential book ‘The End of Work’ identified that technological advances have brought about a gradual reduction in the working week with a 20-hour working week being ever more feasible. More recently, The New Economics Foundation advocated a move towards acceptance of a shorter ‘normal’ working week, to an average of 21 hours. In the UK, both the Labour and Green Parties included a reduction to a four-day week in their last election manifestos maintaining that this would make society more sustainable and increase productivity. Experiments elsewhere have produced varied results, for example, a Swedish project found a shorter working week improved well-being and productivity, but at a high financial cost to the organisation. In Japan, Microsoft’s month-long trial giving full-time staff Fridays off as “special” paid leave saw sales boosted by nearly 40% alongside a significant fall in energy consumption. These examples tell us some of the benefits (and costs) at the level of individual companies, though give us less indication of what might happen at a societal level if the practice was widespread.

Supporters view it as an alternative working pattern to facilitate better work-life balance and quality of life, offering an opportunity to redefine the boundaries of both paid and unpaid work. In all these discussions, however, gender is rarely addressed. Gender is bound to impact experiences of a shorter working week, both because paid and unpaid work intersects in different ways for women, and because time within households is often balanced and negotiated in gendered ways. Many studies have found that women have less free time than men due to domestic and caring responsibilities with unpaid carers more likely to be women than men. There is also a question of whether women have as much choice in the matter: one study, for example, found that women working long hours did not tend to have many choices or freedom when determining the use of their time, whereas men who worked longer hours were more likely to be the ‘master’ of their own domestic setting. Alongside this is the gendered distribution of paid work, where part-time work, primarily done by women, is widely associated with lower pay, fewer development opportunities and limited career progression. This gives us a less appealing viewpoint to frame the shorter working week – as a form of part-time working that has the potential to reinforce existing inequalities.

Those in favour of a shorter working week remain optimistic that it would reduce inequality between women and men by encouraging more sharing of unpaid work, gradually changing patterns of time use as home-life and childcare roles become less subsidiary. They argue that a more sophisticated understanding of work-life balance is possible, moving beyond current ideas of reconciling work with other responsibilities. Instead, there would be measures like well-being through lower stress levels, maintaining strong social relationships and allowing healthier pursuits. The resultant changes to patterns of time use might challenge entrenched assumptions about women’s roles and increase the perceived value of unpaid work and childcare.

For many, though, the ability to work a shorter week would depend on whether they could live on lower salaries. We remain in an environment of austerity with dual-earner families as the norm and both women and men working longer hours, often from economic necessity. If they cannot survive on pay from a shorter week, people will need to take on multiple jobs to make ends meet. This is a particular concern for low-paid women and single mothers, whose work-life balance is determined by limitations on their choices for combining paid and unpaid work. In response, advocates for a shorter week support a minimum living income to alleviate the risk of increasing poverty.

The debates around a shorter working week are likely to continue, not least in a rapidly changing workplace environment that may accelerate through increased home working, reduced contracts and enforced part-time hours in the Covid-19 crisis. As a result of the crisis, the idea of a universal basic income has already entered the mainstream. Though there is potential for a shorter working week to help us balance work and life in better ways, it could also reinforce inequalities in both the workplace and at home. In all of this, we have to ask ‘what about women?’

Dr Kate Clayton-Hathway and Dr Louise Grisoni
Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice, Oxford Brookes Business School

Dr Kate Clayton-Hathway

Kate Clayton-Hathway is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice at Oxford Brookes University and a member of the GEARING-Roles core team. She has many years’ experience as a qualitative researcher specialising in interviews and focus groups, and has a specific specialism in gender equality within organisational structures. Kate is also an activist, focusing mainly on women’s rights, was a founder member of Oxford Fawcett and community outreach coordinator for Oxford International Women’s Festival.

Dr Louise Grisoni

Dr Louise Grisoni is a senior research fellow with the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice at Oxford Brookes Business School. She has spent over 30 years in Higher Education. Her current research focus is on equality and gender, gendered leadership, womens’ careers and work life–balance. She is widely published in this area. She also has an interest in the aesthetic dimensions of work and uses a range of arts-based methods to examine organisational phenomena. Louise is part of the GEARING-Roles Task Force, working closely with the core team.

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