Working Time and Feminism

The alternative is to change our view of what kind of work is socially valuable and to recognize that what happens outside of wage labor should be held in equal esteem.

The Great Recession and the Occupy Wall Street upheaval have finally made the distribution of income a topic of public discussion again, but seldom do we speak about the distribution of time. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, working class movements struggled not just for higher wages, but also for shorter hours, as they successively won the ten hour day, the eight hour day, and the forty hour week. In recent years, however, reductions in work time have been off the agenda. At the household level, with more families containing two full-time workers, the hours of paid employment have risen dramatically. For radicals, the demand for reduced working time is a reclamation of the age-old insistence that leisure time is essential to a free and prosperous humanity: it was Marx who said, approvingly quoting an anonymous polemic, that “wealth is disposable time, and nothing more.” Yet time ought to be on the agenda for liberals, as well. Research suggests that workers are actually more productive when they work shorter schedules; taking some of our increased economic productivity in the form of free time rather than more commodities would be better for the environment; and, as Germany’s experience with work sharing has shown, reducing hours does less economic and human damage than firing employees in a weak economy.

And there is another, less widely appreciated reason to be concerned with working time: the issue is fundamentally linked to feminism and the struggle for gender equality. The length of the wage-working day is intimately connected to the time devoted to unwaged work — the unpaid cooking, cleaning, shopping, care of children and elders, and so on. Reducing time spent in wage labor creates more time for these other tasks, which according to a recent OECD report are as time consuming as paid labor. But the question then becomes whether this work will be shared equally between the sexes. The OECD study also found that American women daily spend nearly two hours more than men on unpaid work.

Given that fact, there is a danger that any reform which makes it easier to reduce paid working time will inadvertently tend to reinforce the gender division of labor, in which men do more paid work and women do more of the less-appreciated work in the home. Research suggests that women will generally be more likely to reduce their hours than men when the opportunity presents itself, for a complex set of cultural, political, and economic reasons. Women then face discrimination in the labor market as employers begin to assume that men will work more hours. This has become a matter of increasing concern even in countries such as the Netherlands, which offers a beguiling model for shorter-hours advocates due to its strong protections for part-timers and large number of part-time jobs. For supporters of what Janet Gornick and Marcia Meyers call the “dual caregiver, dual earner” model, in which men and women participate equally in both paid and unpaid labor, exacerbating these inequalities would be an unfortunate unintended consequence of a policy meant to shorten the work week for everyone.

Of course, even if men and women can be induced to reduce their hours equally,  there’s no guarantee that a man will contribute more to household work. In the long run, the only solution to this dilemma is to make men do their share of unpaid labor. This will require a transformation of everyday life, a cultural revolution that goes far beyond what any change in the law can accomplish. But getting men to spend time in the home is a good start, so it’s worth examining how policies can be designed to facilitate reductions in paid working time for everyone.

Radicals are sometimes leery of detailed examinations of public policy, since “policy analysis” tends to be associated with a de-politicized kind of research, which tries to isolate the technocratic management of society from political and ideological struggle. But short of the final revolutionary reckoning, leftists inevitably find themselves fighting for reforms — that is, demanding the implementation of particular policies. So it’s important to place policy design within the larger framework of Left politics, rather than simply ignoring it.

With respect to the politics of time, legislation on paid parental leave are an instructive case study. In almost every country — the United States being the notable exception — the government guarantees some paid leave from work after the birth of a child. However, the implementation of the policy differs widely and can lead to very different outcomes. One issue that bedevils all these systems is the fact that leave tends to be taken disproportionately by women, even when it’s available to fathers.

There have been some creative responses to this problem. In Sweden, for example, couples are guaranteed a total of 480 days of paid parental leave, but 75 percent are taken by women. In an attempt to address this imbalance, sixty days are now set aside specifically for men. (Single parents and same-sex couples are also fully eligible for leave, though, obviously, the gender-parity issue does not apply in that case.) This is a good start and it seems to be having some genuine impact on the gender division of labor, even if it doesn’t yet get us to a complete gender parity.

With traditional gender roles so hard to change, there is a good case for more aggressive action. In 2008, Sweden added a “gender equality bonus” of up to 275 euros per month, which is paid to families based on how equally leave time is divided between mother and father. Ariel Meysam Ayanna, writing in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Labor and Employment Law, suggests a related policy, which not only replaces a parent’s wage but pays a higher wage while on parental leave. Whether or not these specific policies are the right ones, it’s apparent that something comparably forceful will be necessary to get men to take up their share of responsibility in the household.

In the long run, moving toward equality in unpaid working time is in the interests of men, too. With de-industrialization and the transition to cultural and service industry jobs, the advantages men — particularly less educated men — once enjoyed in the labor market are being eroded. One possible result of this transition is that more and more men will feel embittered and hopeless, as they are cut off from the stable employment that has long been regarded as a source of social standing and self-worth for the male breadwinner. But the alternative is to change our view of what kind of work is socially valuable and to recognize that what happens outside of wage labor — work that sustains and reproduces all of us — should be held in equal esteem.