Should women work like men? Mainstreaming gender in health-related policies

Should we mainstream gender in policy? What would that look like? Taking employment and work as a key example, our guest contributor Associate Professor Lyndall Strazdins (ANU) examines how working hours, ability, gender and care are intersecting and cautions us about which groups are being framed as the new 'leaners'. 

*This post is based on Assoc.Prof Strazdin's contribution to a panel debate at the PTP:Gender, Menzies Policy Grand Challenge held in Canberra last month. 


The very first and very most fundamental step, in my mind, is to be thoughtful about what mainstreaming 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 a silence on changing men.

Let me start with employment participation and intergenerational policy and the issues that combining work with care confronts us with – because this is the place where I think we are facing a massive social and environment challenge due to longevity – people are living longer and they are generally much healthier. We need to both harness their skills and abilities and solve the very real problem of how to support them. Enter polices to encourage more people to work – who are those people? Well, a very great proportion of them are actually women.

But -- there is an injustice happening to women which is economic and this is linked to how we have approached gender equity in employment, which is to concentrate 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, but far less is said on the equally urgent need to encourage and reward men to work (and care) more like women.

We know that women are as skilled as men (42% women, 31% men; 25 - 29 years of age have a Bachelor Degree or above), yet they are less likely to be employed (65% women, 78% men). When they do work they earn less: women earn 18% or $4.10 less per hour for the same job, $700K less over as lifetime. When they age, they are poorer.

In the top Australian universities -- despite there being more women graduates, only 17% of our most powerful, esteemed (and well paid) academics—Professors – are women. It is jaw dropping! How could this possibly happen?? This is the injustice to which I am referring.

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 mainstreaming?

Without any upper limits to working hours we have allowed having and keeping a good job to become tournament based on time. If you don’t want to enter that tournament you opt for part time jobs, and this nearly always locks out good pay, 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 NES 38 weekly work hour recommendation. One in eight employed Australians work longer than 50 hours per week, and the vast majority are men [3].

How 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 hours compared with 35.8 hours for full-time women (a difference of about 4.1 hours more than full-time women).

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]. 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 (HILDA survey data, analyses available on request, Strazdins et al). The average work hours for these jobs is 49 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 (from 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 succeed that is.

So back to what does gender mainstreaming looks 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? Already we know that women are more likely to rush and be time stressed than men.

Is it getting women to work more full time hours (but not in the senior jobs like men do). Is it about getting women to reduce their care time to more equally approximate men’s (Australian men spend an average of 27mins per day caring for household members (averaged over weekends and weekdays, and adults and children). Australian women spend 64mins per day.

Is it about men and women becoming are equally overloaded?

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 one is change these big ticket issues which in my mind means focusing more on men.

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? Because the statistics really do seem to point that way—if we don’t do something about it.

Back to health policy – well as the example of employment I’ve used suggests – I would argue that gender mainstreaming in health means moving out of viewing women’ s health as biological and into the social – we can treat the damage to health that occurs in clinics but we want to treat where that health impact (women and men’s, young and old) is produced – and it is the same place gender and many other social inequities are produced – we need to ensure that gender equity in health policy is underpinned by the thoughtful mainstreaming of gender equity in social and economic policy. As a matter of urgency.

N.B. Australia lacks a clear maximum work week which is regulated and enforced. Even while polices are being enacted to encourage women to work more, there is an absence of policy attention to reducing overwork and very long hours, despite evidence that countries which lack clear maximum working week regulation also show the widest gender gap in work time. Landivar (2015) found that across OECD countries women worked for pay less hours than men (in dual earner households) and this gap varies from 2 hours to 20. Work hours regulations played a major predictive role – for each extra maximum hour allowed (in the EU it is 48), the gender gap in work time widened by 20 minutes [5].

  1. Cha, Y. and K.A. Weeden, Overwork and the slow convergence in the gender gap in wages. American Sociological Review, 2014. 79(3): p. 457-484.
  2. O'Neill, O.A. and C. O'Reilly, Careers as tournaments: The impact of sex and gendered organizational culture preferences in MBA's income attainment. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 2010. 31: p. 856-876.
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian labour market statistics trends in hours worked 6105.0. 2010, ABS: Canberra.
  4. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian social trends overemployment 4102.0. 2011, ABS: Canberra.
  5. Landivar, L.C., The gender gap in employment hours: do work-hour regulations matter? Work, Employment and Society, 2015. 29(4): p. 550-570.

Posted by Lara Corr @corr_lara