Working Time and Feminism

August 16th, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Time, Work  |  1 Comment

NPR has a nice little feature on parental leave policy in Sweden. This relates to my own research on working time, and I think parental leave is a particularly interesting case when it comes to the politics and sociology of time. That’s because I’ve come around to thinking–partly under the influence of my adviser, Janet Gornick–that the issue of reducing working hours is connected to feminism and gender equality at a fundamental level.

That’s because paid work time isn’t the only working time we need to think about–there’s also the unpaid cooking, cleaning, shopping, care of children and elders, and so on, that’s done for free. This work is still disproportionately done by women. Given that fact, it’s highly likely that any reform that makes it easier to reduce paid working time will inadvertently tend to reinforce the gender division of labor, in which men do paid work and women do unpaid work in the home that is not as highly valued. This moves us away from the “dual caregiver, dual earner” model that I think would be preferable from the standpoint of gender equality.

As things stand now, women will generally be more likely to reduce their hours than men when the opportunity presents itself. Women may then face discrimination in the labor market because employers start to assume that men will work longer hours. This is a concern even in a country like the Netherlands, which has a lot of protections for part-timers and a huge number of part-time jobs, and hence is a beguiling model for shorter-hours advocates like me.

Even if men and women do reduce hours equally, there’s no guarantee that the man will contribute to the unpaid labor of the household even if he’s around. In the long run, the only solution to this dilemma is to figure out how to make men do their share of the housework–which means that to some extent this is a matter of cultural change that the state doesn’t have much control over. Still, getting the guy to spend time in the home is a good start, and so there is still a role for well-designed policy that facilitates reductions in paid working time for everyone.

This brings us back to the Swedish parental leave model: Swedish couples are guaranteed a total of 480 days of paid parental leave, but 75 percent of this is taken by women. The Swedes are aware of this imbalance, which is why 60 of the 480 days are set aside specifically for men, and cannot be used by the woman in a couple. This is a good start, and it seems to be having some genuine impact on the gender division of labor, although it would probably be even better if we could move closer to a 50/50 split.

But since traditional gender roles are a pretty tough nut to crack, more aggressive policy is probably warranted. For instance, this article suggests a policy that doesn’t just replace a man’s wage when he’s on paternity leave, but actually pays more than he was making at his job. I’d be in favor of that kind of approach if that’s what it takes to make us guys take equal responsibility for unpaid work.

And if Don Peck is right that men are likely to face increasing difficulty in the labor market as the transition away from an industrial economy proceeds, then us guys may have no choice but to rethink our relationship to wages and labor.