Female friends and colleagues are asking whether a shorter working week would just reinforce the status quo where men expect to do more paid work and women to do more unpaid care work.
This gendered division of labour certainly exists. On average, British men of employment age worked nearly double the number of hours women worked (in 2005 when the last British Time Use Survey was done). And British women spend on average about twice as much time as men on housework and caring activities. However, while the gender gap in domestic work is gradually narrowing, European women who work full time still also do two thirds of the housework, according to an ESRC study.
If more women than men took advantage of a move towards shorter working hours, a perpetuation of these inequalities could clearly happen. And it does seem to have worked that way in the Netherlands. However, things could also work the other way round. A shorter working week as the norm for everyone should provide an opportunity to make inroads into the massive social problem that women still do way more than their share of cleaning, cooking and caring. In France, a year after the government introduced a 35-hour working week, a large survey showed that almost as many men as women were spending more time with their children than previously; people with young children were the group most in favour of the change.
Meanwhile, men point out that the perceived male responsibility to be the ultimate reliable breadwinner is not all pure joy either… but that this sense of responsibility is deeply engrained and hard to shift. But nevertheless, a shorter working week as the norm for everyone must surely provide a better opportunity to equalise things between men and women, both by opening up the possibility of a greater balance for both those who currently do long hours of paid work and those who currently spend all or most of their working time on unpaid domestic work. On its own it would not shift centuries of conditioning, but it would open up paths for other changes in social norms.
Gendered expectations around paid and unpaid work are certainly (still) very much with us. My own experience bears this out. When I went back to work four days a week after having my first child, no one batted an eyelid at my ‘going part-time’ and some asked whether I found 4 days rather too much work. In contrast, my partners’ 4-day week attracted slightly surprised admiration, and even from one person in our lives the comment “but can a man really do that to his career?”
To my mind, though, none of this means that women should strive to equal men’s working hours. It means that policies to move towards a shorter working week for all must be designed with care and attention towards the possible differential impacts on women and men. And that we also need to continue to work on the social norms that underpin gender inequalities.