A four day week is not the gender equality quick fix that it seems

In this weeks column, Julia Rampen explores proposals for a four day week and asks who benefits whilst inequalities in domestic life persist?

Julia Rampen explores proposals for a four day week and asks who benefits whilst inequalities in domestic life persist?

“There ain’t never enough time, never enough,” laments Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Jack Twist in the cowboy romance Brokeback Mountain. The Trades Union Congress wants to change that. TUC chief Frances O’Grady has urged a four-day week by the end of this century, as a means of sharing the benefits of technological advancement. Her comments were quickly praised by working mothers for another reason – the belief that shorter weeks advance gender equality.  

The Keynesian promise

O’Grady is right to question the norms of the working week, and who it actually benefits. The average full-time British worker spends 37 hours at their desk. This was not obvious to thinkers of the past. The industrial revolution brought artificially-lit factories, and with them, six-day weeks where days could be 16 hours long. Reformers responded by campaigning for shorter hours, initially just for children. By the early 20th century, the campaign focused on legislating for an eight-hour day and a 48 hour week (the Factories Act of 1937 finally imposed limits, but only for women and young people). Progress seemed to be moving in one direction: the economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted in 1930 that by the beginning of the 21st century we would be working no more than 15 hours a week.

Now the TUC worries this progress could be reversed. It has warned that if unchecked, new technology could reverse the gains of the past centuries and result in digital “piece-work”.

As the New Economics Foundation, a thinktank, recently observed: “The logic of industrial time is out of step with today’s conditions, where instant communications and mobile technologies bring new risks and pressures, as well as opportunities.” It suggested the optimum working week should be 21 hours long.

Do more hours mean more productivity?

Some employers agree, on the basis that shorter work hours improve concentration and productivity. Recent research by management academics found that European workers who put in overtime do not actually benefit in terms of their careers. Norway, a country famed for its short working weeks, is also one of the most productive in the world. A New Zealand firm which trialled the approach found employees were more motivated. An Australian PR boss introduced a similar policy after experiencing a stress disorder herself.

A four day week is also an obvious way to improve the representation of women in the workplace. Comparisons between the US and Sweden found that women are more likely to be employed when flexible working is an option. As well as allowing mothers to juggle parenting and work, there may be other groups that benefit. In a 2017 article, the co-leaders of the Green party argued that such a reform would “break down inequalities between women and men”.

On this, though, I’m not quite convinced. Yes, women are more likely to work part-time, and yes, part-timers are overlooked for promotion, so forcing everyone to work part-time would level the playing field. Yes, judging by the way most people react to bank holidays, a four day week would be incredibly popular.

Who really benefits from a four day week?

Still, when I read glowing reports of employees publishing poetry collections on the side, I can’t help feeling sceptical. Advocates of a four day week have argued that allowing for more free time will disproportionately benefit women, as there will be more recognition to the role of unpaid labour and hence more sharing out of the chores. This though fair, is far from obvious. The proportion of women entering the workplace has soared in the UK over the past 30 years. Yet women do 13 hours on average of housework a week, while men do only eight. On top of that, they spend 23 hours caring for family members, more than double the 10 spent by men. Without significant cultural change, it’s not clear that women’s free time will be free time at all.

Certain feminist groups have long campaigned for housework to be recognised as a de facto second job for women. And housework, unlike progressive employers, has little interest in nourishing talent. I’m still haunted by the tale related by Pepsico chief executive Indra K Nooyi. In a 2014 interview with The Atlantic, she recalled how one day she returned home early to tell her mother that she had just been promoted. Before she could share her news, her mother asked her to buy some milk. She had not asked Nooyi’s husband, she explained, because he was “tired”. When Nooyi protested, her mother responded: “You might be on the board of directors. But when you enter this house, you’re the wife, you’re the daughter, you’re the daughter-in-law, you’re the mother. You’re all of that. Nobody else can take that place. So leave that damned crown in the garage.”

This is all the more relevant for lower-paid women and single mothers. The TUC wants to say a four day week for the same pay – in effect a pay rise – something many finance directors will find hard to stomach. If a company offered a four-day week with an effective pay cut, however, it’s easy to imagine a three-day weekend being eaten up by second jobs, childcare, multiple shopping trips to find the best deal, meals cooked from scratch, laundry, cleaning and mending.

Downtime on company time

Allowing more flexible working undoubtedly keeps women in the workforce. But if employers really want to get the most out of them, they need to recognise that they cannot simply outsource creative development and upskilling to an elusive “free time”. Instead, companies can follow the tech giants and offer specific time slots for employees to pursue their own projects. They can encourage male employees to take longer chunks of shared parental leave when a child is born. And they can make sure there are mentoring and networking programmes in place that allow women to make connections in work time before any other responsibilities kick in.

To update Keynes’s prophecy, I’d like to see a three-day weekend in my working lifetime. I’d also like to see a culture that gives women enough of that time to learn to code, play around with new technologies, and get enough of a break to start work fresh on Monday. Employers can’t change this culture alone, but they can make a start.

Julia Rampen

Julia Rampen is the digital night editor at the Liverpool Echo, a former digital news editor at the New Statesman and financial journalist.

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