The feminist case for a shorter working week

Our working week is a relic of another time when women were expected to stay in the home. We have to change that.

In 1963 the American author Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. This game-changing book helped to launch the “second wave” of feminism that raged through the next two decades. It showed how women were increasingly well educated but trapped at home being housewives: Friedan called it “the problem that has no name”.

Fifty years on, the problem is only marginally different. It is less about enforced joblessness and housework; more about the pressures of paid work and caring. Nowadays women are expected to go out to work and bring home a wage, but they must do so in ways that interfere as little as possible with, first, caring for children and, later, caring for ailing parents – and often both at once. As a result, many women do so-called “part-time” jobs, which attract lower wages and status because they are not seen as proper (that is, “full-time”) employment. The formal economy could not survive for a moment without the work women do at home. Yet this work is un-valued and largely unnoticed: it is today’s “problem that has no name”. 

Last week’s British Social Attitudes Survey confirmed what many of us suspected - our attitudes to gender roles are changing, but in reality women still bear the brunt of domestic responsibilities. And this has a huge influence over how men and women use and value time, how much power they have, and relations between them. 

Women fought long and hard for the right to enter paid employment on equal terms with men. But this has never been matched with any equivalent movement of men into unpaid caring. So inequalities between women and men remain deeply entrenched.  It is an absurd situation that is ethically indefensible and politically unsustainable. Moreover, it is avoidable. 

In our new book Time on Our Side, we examine the case for a shorter working week – a slow but steady move towards an average of 30 hours, for women and for men. Suppose, as a thought experiment, that it became “normal” to do paid work for the equivalent of four days or 30 hours a week. Every individual – male and female – who now works for five days or around 40 hours would work 30 hours instead. This opens up a range of opportunities for doing things differently. Each man and women would have 50 per cent more time to spend outside the workplace. For a family with two adults who currently work five days a week, this could reduce the number of hours required for paid care by as much as 2 days a week, reducing the care bill by up to 40 per cent.  For households where one adult, usually the female, works short hours while the other works long hours, a new 30-hour “standard” could enable the woman to take on more paid employment, opening up opportunities outside the home and potentially narrowing the pay gap between herself and her partner. And it would give the man more time to spend with his family. 

In effect, with a 30-hour norm, “part-time” would become the new “full-time”. The pressures on women of combining paid work and caring would ease substantially. “Part-timers” would no longer be marginalised once this became the “standard” pattern of paid employment for men as well as women. The corrosive inequalities of income and power between women and men would begin to ebb and change. Men could build their capabilities as parents and carers. Children would get more time with their fathers as well as their mothers and develop less polarised views about male and female identities. 

But moving to a shorter working week will bring a wider range of benefits. In Time on Our Side, the authors show how a slow but steady move towards a shorter paid working week would help to address a range of urgent, interlinked problems: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life. 

Of course, the call for a shorter working week throws the issue of pay into sharp relief. For many, working shorter hours would mean abject poverty. But the answer to the problem of low pay is not to force people to work long hours just to get by.  It must be tackled on its own ground. This calls for a broad strategy on low pay that goes well beyond defending the National Minimum Wage, to include education, training and pressures on employers to improve pay and conditions. On average, women still earn less than men, so tackling low pay is a gender issue too.

The personal is not just political, it is economic. Who does the dishes or changes the nappies is more than a social choice it’s the effect of an economy that runs on gender divides. Our working week is a relic of another time when women were expected to stay in the home. The next wave of feminism must challenge that.

Anna Coote is Head of Social Policy at the New Economics Foundation

The working week is a hangover from a time when women were expected to stay at home. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.


Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  


India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.