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.

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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