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
Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

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

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