What does the 4-day week mean for gender equality?

27 nov. 2023


What does the 4-day week mean for gender equality?
Laetitia VitaudExpert du Lab

Autrice, consultante et conférencière sur le futur du travail, spécialiste de la productivité, de l’âge et du travail des femmes

Special initiatives promoting gender equality in the workplace beyond legal obligations enjoy varying degrees of success. We often read about the value of combating stereotyping during hiring, supporting parents at work, and requiring salary transparency, but we hear less about the 4-day workweek and its role in gender equality. Here our expert Laetitia Vitaud shows that, under the right conditions, the 4-day workweek can tip the scale toward greater equality.

The 4-day workweek offers advantages in terms of well-being, quality of life at work, and work-life balance by providing an extra day for activities outside of work. It’s also becoming increasingly popular and the focus of debates on reducing working hours. In 2023, even the US automotive industry labor unions started to ask for it.

Many believe in the benefits of a 4-day workweek, expecting all but miracles from it, so could the model also be a catalyst for gender equality? Its impact seems to be positive. By giving women and men more time to take care of their families and households, the 4-day workweek could lighten the mental load that has weighed more heavily on women. A shorter week could also make it possible to distribute domestic and parenting responsibilities more evenly. That’s a good thing, right? But is this an actual step forward? Doesn’t that depend on certain conditions?

Greater income equality

I am convinced that by reducing the role of work in our lives, we can have a positive effect on gender equality. On a global scale, women are still responsible for more than two-thirds of household chores and parenting tasks. Their professional and personal lives are weighed down by a mental load that can affect their careers. An additional day off would be a breath of fresh air for those who have been suffocating the most.

In many fields, “success” is built on sacrifice and insane hours. Overworking is glorified in many top roles, from traders to surgeons, strategy consultants to investment bankers. In these upper echelons, it’s about working six days instead of five and 80 hours instead of 40. In the US, these high-paying jobs are called “greedy jobs” because they demand a massive time commitment that makes work-life balance impossible. These positions contribute significantly to the economic success gap between men and women, as they exclude workers who can’t (or won’t) work 80 hours a week, including mothers and caregivers.

Faced with this world of work, women often make choices that penalize them financially. Many opt for less lucrative careers that require fewer hours. Others avoid going for a promotion so that they are not asked to do more. Or they ask to work part-time so that they can have more time to take care of their families. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 23.4% of working women in 2019 held part-time jobs compared to just 11.5% of men holding part-time jobs. In the US, nearly six out of every 10 part-time workers are women. This is often women who struggled to handle two-thirds of parenting tasks and household chores while working full-time.

These choices come at a high price. They cause a loss of income in the short term and a lower retirement income in the long term. In 2019, the average annual benefit men 65 and older received was about $17,000 while women of the same age received about $13,500 – a difference of 22%. So let’s not beat around the bush: The 4-day workweek is essential to limit this gap. If we can do our full-time job in four days without going part-time, that’s a significant win.

Increased equality at work and in life

Yet it’s not just about money. If implemented intelligently, the 4-day workweek leads to a reorganization of work that eliminates waste, and ends presenteeism. This model encourages you to increase productivity and to shine by producing results rather than talking about them or or just showing up. It means fewer – often unnecessary – meetings, which disproportionately affect those with family responsibilities who are placed at a disadvantage when they can’t participate. Phasing out unnecessary meetings creates a more equitable work environment where women have a better chance of advancing.

Switching from five days to four also allows space for other aspects of life. By freeing up time to spend on other roles that are usually squeezed in betweentimes at an overly demanding job – such as parent, homemaker, volunteer, sports fan or amateur musician – we can revisit those roles. On a grand scale, the 4-day workweek could have a powerful cultural influence encouraging men and women to spend more time on parenting and household tasks, and to do it in a more rewarding way.

Men who live with their children have become more involved in their kids’ lives than in previous generations. Divorced fathers are also more likely to spend regular time with their children. However, if fathers still spend less time with their children than mothers, it may be because work expectations don’t make it easy for them. Extending parental leave for fathers could have a significant impact on household role-sharing. The 4-day workweek may have a similar effect. Add remote work to the mix, and many men would spend more time at home and have the opportunity to be more involved in family life.

Beware of the ‘fake’ 4-day workweek and its effects

While the 4-day workweek is gaining momentum, not every company implements it in the same way. Some reorganize work to reduce hours, while others squeeze the work usually completed in five days into four. In the latter case, it can mean longer and more stressful days. For example, Belgium recently passed a law on this that gives employees a choice. They have to work the same number of hours, but they can decide whether those hours are completed in four days or five. This increased flexibility might seem beneficial, but it doesn’t result in extra free time.

I call this – somewhat provocatively – the ‘fake’ 4-day workweek and I believe it’s not suitable for everyone. If it’s a struggle to pick up your child on time from daycare on a normal day, this isn’t going to help. For those with parenting responsibilities who are already tired and stressed, the option of compressing five days of work into four isn’t necessarily a good one. The same goes for caregivers, many of whom are women.

Does the 4-day workweek (both real and fake) have unexpected downsides? In matters of gender equality, the devil is in the detail. Because working four days isn’t common, it seems unlikely that all the adults in any household would work only four days. What happens if a woman who is also a mother is in a relationship with a man who works five days a week? It is likely that her extra day off will be spent taking care of domestic chores and parenting, making the distribution of tasks even less balanced. The fifth day becomes a day of chores for the woman alone.

Time off is great, but if it means more housework and shopping, is it really a gift? Working from home also reinforces gender gaps in childcare and parenting, according to a study published in the Journal of Social Issues. Women may find themselves trapped by the flexibility that remote work offers. They’ll do more laundry, for example, or are the ones readily available for the children, and this can accentuate gender inequality.

The 4-day workweek offers promising opportunities for gender equality at work and in daily life. A shorter week can help alleviate the mental load women carry when it comes to domestic chores and parenting, while allowing them to continue to work full-time. But it needs to be accompanied by a commitment to promote gender equality. However, all things being equal, we shouldn’t expect miracles.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Translated by Lorraine Posthuma

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