Gender differences in paid and unpaid time at work are an important aspect of gender inequality. Women tend to spend more time on unpaid household and family care work, and men spend more time in paid work. This unequal distribution of time creates barriers to women’s advancement at work and reduces women’s economic security.
Technological innovation through machine learning, robotics, and artificial intelligence is likely to automate many tasks and jobs, thus improving productivity, freeing time, and allowing fewer workers to do more. Technological innovation presents an opportunity to rethink the distribution of time spent on paid and unpaid work, tackle the inequality in the division of domestic and care work between women and men, and provide time for upskilling and lifelong learning needed to benefit from future opportunities.
This first section of this report presents analysis on why work hours matter to gender equality, and what role time-related policies may play in reducing gender inequality, and more generally, social and economic inequality. The findings show women’s growing contribution to paid work and highlight that, as women’s average hours at work have increased, men’s have not declined. Inequality in paid and unpaid time has remained particularly stark between mothers and fathers. The report then highlights the growing inequality between those who work a lot and those who work intermittently, part-time, or part-year. In addition, the analysis shows that this polarization in paid time at work is increasingly exacerbating racial inequalities.
The second section of the report focuses on changes in the quality of time at work and workforce policies around scheduling, location, and paid time off. The report notes how a growing lack of schedule control and the absence of paid leave rights reinforce economic and racial/ethnic inequalities and are particularly harmful to parents. The report ends with recommendations to achieve a healthier and more equal distribution of hours worked.
Based on analysis of the U.S. Current Population Survey, the report presents trends in hours worked during the last forty years for workers ages 25 to 64, with the following findings:
Women’s Hours Rose During the Last 40 Years, While Men’s Declined Marginally
- During the last 40 years, women’s average annual number of hours in paid work increased substantially, while average hours worked by men during the same period declined only marginally. In 2017, women’s average annual hours were slightly below 40 per week (1,863 hours per year), while men’s were above (2,110 hours per year).
- The increase in annual hours was particularly strong for women who work full-time (at least 35 hours per week). On average, women full-time workers now work five more weeks per year than they did in 1977, and men one more week. As a sign of growing polarization of paid time at work, average weeks in paid work for women who work less than full-time did not increase in the last two decades, and decreased for men who work less than full-time.
Fathers Work More Hours than Other Men, Mothers Work Less Hours than Other Women
- Since 1977, mothers increased the time spent in paid employment by more than 300 hours per year (an increase of 29 percent). Over the same period, the average annual hours of fathers fell by just 8 hours (or 1 percent).
- Fathers work more hours on average than other men, and mothers work fewer paid hours than other women, in each major racial and ethnic group. White fathers spend the highest number of hours at work, and the gap in annual hours between White mothers and fathers is the largest among all groups at 21 percent.
- Black mothers spend more time than other mothers in paid work, and have done so throughout the last four decades, and before. In 1977, Black women worked over 200 hours, around five weeks, more per year than White or Hispanic mothers. By 2017, Black mothers were still on average working over 104 hours more than Hispanic mothers, 89 hours more than White mothers, and 52 hours more than Asian mothers.
- Forty years ago, married mothers’ average working time per year was approximately 20 percent lower than that of single mothers; by 2017, the difference was no more than 3 percent. The same convergence in hours has not happened among married and single fathers.
- The impact of marriage on the work hours of mothers varies starkly by race and ethnicity. Among White and Asian women, average annual hours are lower for married than for single mothers; the reverse is true for Black mothers, and for Hispanic women there is no appreciable difference.
Women Outnumber Men among Part-Time Workers and are Almost as Likely as Men to Work Part-Time Involuntarily
- The rate of part-time work varies over the life cycle, and is highest at the beginning and at the end of the working life for both women and men. Women part-time workers outnumber men at each stage of the life cycle, but the differences are particularly high during early- and mid-career.
- Almost nine in 10 of those who work part-time because of child care and other family-related reasons are women. Part-time work is significantly more common in low-wage occupations, such as cashiers, customer service representatives, and nursing and personal care workers, where women are the majority of the workforce and it is less common to have stable hours.
- Part-time work is often of lower quality than full-time work, with lower pay and few benefits. Providing part-time workers with lower benefits or pay than comparable full-time workers is illegal in most other high-income economies.
- Women are close to half of all involuntary part-time workers. The share of Black and Hispanic women part-time workers (ages 25 years and older) who report that they worked part-time involuntarily (22 and 21 percent, respectively) is more than twice as high as for White women (10 percent), and nearly twice as high as it is for Asian women (12 percent).
Increasing Overwork Creates Barriers to Women’s Advancement at Work and Exacerbates Gender Inequality at Home
- Nearly one in five women (18.2 percent) and nearly one in three men (31.8 percent) usually work more than 40 hours per week. For the majority of workers in this category, this means working more than 50 hours per week.
- The practice of overwork in many professional and managerial positions reduces women’s access to the highest paid jobs because of the imbalance in family care responsibilities; likewise, overwork also makes it more difficult for men to contribute equally to care and domestic work.
- Research shows that working long hour days or weeks on a regular basis has adverse health consequences, reduces productivity, increases workplace injuries, and leads to lower job satisfaction.
- Unlike many other countries, where hours of work are more regulated as part of a concern with health and safety, the U.S Labor code offers few protections from overwork (with the potential exception for workers with disabilities under the ADA).
Work Schedules Have Become Less Regular Regardless of the Number of Hours Worked
- During the last decade, the line between work and non-work time has become increasingly blurred for full-time and part-time workers in both lower and higher-paid occupations. A substantial number of women in low-wage jobs have little control over the timing of their work.
- While some parents may proactively seek employment during non-standard hours as a means of organizing employment around child care needs, schedule fluctuations still have adverse impacts on parents and children.
- A growing number of U.S. workers work remotely thanks to advances in communication technologies. While control over where and when they work is a highly sought-after benefit, it often comes at a price—either due to work overload or adverse career consequences for making use of flexible working options.
- Business case studies—such as the Gap study, where workers were provided greater say over their schedules—show that using scheduling technology to allow workers a say leads to higher revenues and improved productivity.
The Lack of Legal Rights to Paid Time Off is Exacerbating Inequality and Reduces Women’s Labor Force Participation
- The lack of paid parental leave is one factor accounting for women’s lower labor force participation rate in the United States compared with other high income countries. Job protected paid maternity leave improves women’s labor market participation, allows them to maintain and build their earnings, and improves maternal and infant health.
- Access to paid time off and the length of paid time off is highly unequal. Low-wage workers are much less likely to have access to paid sick benefits, paid vacation and holidays, and paid family leave than higher earning workers. Hispanic workers are least likely to have access to paid sick time.
Redistributing and reorganizing hours of work is one way of distributing productivity gains from automation equitably, smoothing the potential disruptive impact of technological displacement, and encouraging greater gender equality in paid and unpaid work.
Recommendations to improve equity in work hours include:
- Guarantee paid family leave, paid sick days, and paid vacation. Investing in paid leave policies that address life cycle needs for time off (for parenthood, education, elder care and civic engagement) can potentially increase GDP by increasing labor force participation rates, particularly for women.
- Improve access to quality part-time or reduced hours work. Legislation to provide workers who work less than 35 hours with the right to equal treatment in pay, promotions, and benefits, and to give employees options for reducing their hours without having to change employment or their career, can improve access to quality part-time work.
- Increase worker control over the scheduling of their time at work. New scheduling technology makes it easier and less costly to prepare schedules and allocate shifts in occupations with extensive operating hours. Fair scheduling statutes passed in several jurisdictions offer examples of how to provide workers with more stability in the time they work.
- Discourage extensive overwork and overtime. Providing workers with a right to refuse mandatory overtime, and providing mandatory rest times between shifts, will reduce scheduling conflict and improve health. Updating overtime earnings thresholds, and ensuring that a larger number of women and men are covered by overtime regulations, will reduce employer incentives to make long hours an expected component of employment.
- Provide paid time for employees to upgrade their skills as technology changes. Technological innovation is affecting the delivery of learning and increasing the options for remote access to instruction. Yet, learning will continue to take time, time outside of paid work that women often do not have because of their care commitments. Paid time to upgrade skills and pursue lifelong learning can reduce inequality in access to new employment opportunities.
- Encourage work sharing through the Unemployment Insurance system during times of economic transition and downturns and facilitate work sharing more broadly. During slack business or downturns, work sharing arrangements allow workers to receive unemployment benefits to compensate for loss of earnings if their hours are temporarily cut back. This allows employers to retain valued and skilled workers and provides greater economic security and workforce attachment to workers.
- Promote a reduction in the standard working week. Even though it fails to be the reality for many workers, the 40-hour workweek nevertheless has become the benchmark against which working time is judged. The 40-hour threshold has not been improved since 1938 and the coming decades provide an opportunity to share time and rewards more equally by lowering the legal definition of full-time work.
Technological innovation in the coming decades will provide opportunities to promote a more equal distribution of work, leisure, and family and community time. Technology is already making it much easier for employers and employees to design win-win solutions on scheduling and the location of work. While the reduction of paid time at work alone is unlikely to eliminate gender inequality, it can support men in being good caregivers and make it easier for women to succeed at work. Without proactive policy interventions on time at work, however, gender inequalities at work and at home will likely persist—or worse, increase.
This report was originally published at Institute For Women’s Policy Research on November 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
Prior to joining IWPR, Valerie had more than seven years of experience doing research and project implementation for development organizations, including the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Organization of American States. Valerie has worked and lived in several countries of Latin America and the Caribbean and is fluent in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole. She has also been an Adjunct Instructor at American University, George Mason University and University of Mary Washington where she taught Economic Theory, Business and Society, and Gender Economics.
Valerie has a PhD in Economics from American University. Her dissertation combined quantitative and qualitative data to analyze immigrant labor outcomes while considering the intersectionality of gender, race, ethnicity and culture.