A tournament of endurance: Does equal pay mean equal time?

Are higher-status positions and good pay rewarded to those most qualified or those who win an endurance test of hours spent at the office? Today’s contributor, Lyndall Strazdins of Australia National University, presents the evidence that gender divides in the workplace are heavily influenced by the number of hours available for working. This not only limits women’s participation in the workplace with negative consequences on their financial security and influence, it is also negatively impacting on men’s work-life balance and health. She argues for an overhaul of working-time related policies to create a more beneficial working life for everyone.

Assoc. Professor Strazdins is speaking on this topic at Breakthrough, sponsored by the Victorian Women’s Trust and running on 25 and 26 November in Melbourne.

There is an economic injustice happening to women which is linked to how we have approached gender equity in employment. Efforts are concentrated on helping women to work in order to earn income, become leaders, shape the agenda via their work role, just as men are and do. Far less is said and almost nothing is done on the equally urgent need to encourage and reward men to care more like women. Women working more, while still being able to care, is a public policy issue, but men working less so that they can care more is not.

The very first and very most fundamental step, in my mind, is to be thoughtful about what gender equality and policies to achieve it would look like. Would it be about policies that change women or policies that change men? I think we need both -- but right now what I see is a raft of policies that are about changing what women do – and silence on changing what men do.

Employment participation, intergenerational policies, and combining work with care creates a nexus of policies that need revisiting. We are facing a massive social and environment challenge because of longevity – people are living longer and they are generally much healthier – and we need to both harness their skills and abilities and solve the very real problem of how to support them. Enter policies encouraging more people to work longer hours: who are those people? Well, a very great proportion of them are women.

A few facts on women’s employment: We know that women are as skilled as men; 42% women compared to31% men aged 25 - 29 years of age have a Bachelor Degree or above. Yet they are less likely to be employed – 65% women compared to 78% men. When they do work they earn less: women earn 18% or $4.10 less per hour for the same job, or $700K less over a lifetime. (Find full information from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency website.)

When women age, they are poorer. In the top Australian universities, despite more women graduates, only 25% of our most powerful, esteemed and well paid academics – Professors — are women. How could this possibly happen? This is the injustice to which I am referring and at least some of it is linked to time.

There is now consistent evidence that gender gaps in pay and seniority areas are linked to long work hours [1], which are widespread in this country.

Are we asking – or requiring – women to work like men? Is this gender equality?

Without any upper limits, we have allowed having and keeping a good job to become a tournament of endurance based on hours worked. Those who don’t want to or are unable to enter that tournament instead opt for part-time jobs, and this nearly always locks out good pay and good conditions, and of course economic security,  superannuation, and last but not least, being able to influence the agenda. All of this matters to gender equality and all of this shapes people’s health.

Currently, at least one quarter of all employed Australians work past the National Employment Standard 38 weekly work-hours recommendation. One of eight employed Australians works longer than 50 hours per week, and the vast majority are men [3].

How long do men work? Well, men continue to work more hours on the job than women do in most developed countries – a difference of 10 hours per week when averaged over 18 OECD countries.

In July 2010, on average, full-time Australian men worked 41.0 weekly hours compared with 35.8 hours for full-time women – a difference of about 4.1 hours more than full-time women. This calculates out to 16.4 additional hours per month, or 180.4 hours per year, assuming 1 month leave. Quite a time advantage.

This gender gap in working time has widened over the past decades, even as women’s labour force participation has risen. Thirty years ago, full-time men worked an average of just 1.4 hours more than full-time women [4]. Work-hours regulations (or their lack) play a major role – in a study of how work time regulation shapes men’s and women’s work time, Landivar (2015) showed that for each extra maximum hour allowed (in the EU it is 48), the gender gap in work time widened by 20 minutes [5].

Such gender gaps are most apparent in the high-earning jobs, hence the underlying gender gap in wages. Our own analyses show that 81% of employees in the top decile of employment-related earnings are men, of these men 24% are fathers. This compares with the 19% of women in the top earing decile of whom 3.8% are mothers.  The average work hours for high-earning jobs is 49 hours per week. So is the answer to equity for women to work like this too?

One big problem with long work hour expectations is that career advancement shifts from promoting merit to promoting time devoted to the job [2]. As well as undermining innovation and the use of the nation’s human resources, rewarding longer hours rather than talent and ability discriminates against anyone with a time constraint (including caregiving, health or community commitments) and this is most usually a problem faced by women. A second problem is that it makes care and all the other activities we rely on to keep healthy secondary – if you want to economically succeed, that is.

With these considerations, what does gender equity look like? Is gender equity getting women to work more, even if it is part time, while men continue to work in the ways that get the real rewards? Is it getting women to work more full-time hours, but not in the senior jobs predominantly held by men? Is it about getting women to reduce their care time to more equally approximate men’s?  For example, Australian men spend an average of 22 mins per day caring for their children (averaged over weekends and weekdays). Australian women spend more than double this, at 59 mins per day. Is it about men and women becoming equally overloaded? Is that the way forward for equal pay?

The easy option is to tinker with what women do but ignore the wider, systemic issues that both women and men work and live within. The hard solution is to change the unhealthy structural issues, which means focusing more on men’s work and care norms and supporting men to take time to care without penalty or prejudice.

Of course, there will be objections and perhaps that tired old response that people who work longer deserve to get the rewards. Really? What about the people who care? Or volunteer, or are engaged politically, help others, as well as hold down a job? Are they the new leaners?  It’s worth pointing out that there is an inverse correlation between longer hours and the productive output per hour for employees – so true benefits to the employer are debatable. Finally, let’s not ignore the negative health costs of overwork which eventually undermines productivity

This analysis is a contribution to the Scorecard on Women and Policy project, initiated by the Women's Policy Action Tank.  We invite policy specialists in all areas to provide analysis of public policy using a gender lens:  womenspolicy@goodshep.org.au  Follow us on Twitter: @PolicyforWomen