Opinion: How Shorter Working Weeks Will Revolutionize Gender Equity
By Grace Tallon
We are inundated by calls for people to “embrace equity.”
But what do we mean by embracing equity? For me, it’s a bit like telling women to “lean in” — a completely pointless statement if the environment we are encouraging women to lean into is set up entirely to kick them right back out.
The pandemic made mass remote working permissible, but it was already possible. We had the tools and technology to work remotely; we just needed a great disruptor to make it acceptable.
Plus, you can’t un-ring a bell. Employees now expect this type of flexibility, and organizations that fail to offer flexible working arrangements lose out in the war for talent.
However, flexible working alone will not solve the global gender pay gap or improve gender equity at home and in the workplace.
How many women do you know that have opted to take up part-time roles or move to reduced hours for less pay to facilitate family, household, and caring responsibilities?
This is how I first became interested in a shorter workweek. During my time as a public representative in Ireland, there was a major study done in the public sector that showed working parents — mostly women — were opting to do just that: return to work for fewer hours and less pay, but their job demands, responsibilities, and expectations often didn’t change.
So many working parents already work a four-day week or equivalent shorter working week for reduced salaries while maintaining the same level of output. This efficiency demonstrates that “Parkinson’s Law” — that a task expands to fill the time available for its completion — holds true in most modern organizations.
A shorter workweek is already here, it is just buried under the rubble of unnecessary meetings, distractions, interruptions in the workday, outdated processes, and poor use of technology.
As for part-time work, this usually pays less per hour than full-time work, but for many women, it is the only type of work that fits around caring responsibilities. This is a significant driver of the gender pay gap.
The gender pay gap is most prevalent at the mid to senior level. Why? Women who are juggling work and caring responsibilities are far less likely to put themselves forward for promotions, leadership positions, or other career-enhancing opportunities.
If we are to seriously look at how to close the gender pay gap and create greater equity in the workplace as well as at home, it is time for leaders to act with urgency to implement policies that will even the playing field. This will take courage.
Universalizing reduced working time in a variety of different forms — four-day weeks, nine-day fortnights, shorter work days — will transform the landscape for gender equity.
How? It will provide more flexibility for individuals to balance their work and personal lives, fostering greater opportunities for women to increase their paid hours or enter the labour market.
Furthermore, care taking has changed with workers caring for children and elderly parents at various points in their careers. Shorter workweeks can help them manage those responsibilities, which disproportionately fall on women.
In the recent large-scale four-day week trial in the U.S. and Canada, researchers reported that participating employees were happier and healthier, and the overwhelming majority of businesses saw improvements in revenue, productivity, and overall efficiency as well as in attracting and retaining talent.
The findings from a gender equity perspective were also extremely encouraging. While both men and women experienced improved outcomes across a wide range of well-being indicators, the benefits felt by women were even greater.
One of the stand-out results was that 14 per cent of participants said that no amount of money would entice them back to a five-day week.
There’s an increasingly compelling economic case for work time reduction. Addressing employee burnout, stress, and unsustainable workloads is a prime motivator for many companies in their decision to test a shorter work week.
Our current work structure was not designed for today’s society. A shorter working week implemented systematically and structured across organizations will move the needle on gender equity — more than any other policy currently being debated.