How a four-day week could fight the gender pay gap

A new book looks at the potential equalising effects of a shorter working week.

women at work in the mid-20th century - black and white

The notion of a four-day working week (with no reduction of income) has been thrust into the political limelight of late, with Labour even including the idea in its election manifesto.

The idea is discussed at length in a new book, The Four Day Week, by Andrew Barnes. Barnes is founder and managing director of the New Zealand estate planning firm that tried such an experiment back in 2018, Perpetual Guardian.

Barnes highlights the positive impact a four-day week could have on stress levels and productivity, with continuity of output despite a reduction of working time. Another entrancing possibility could be its potential to reduce the ever-prevailing gender pay gap.

Normally, it would go without saying that reverting to part-time hours reduces income, curbing the part-timer’s opportunity for career progression and higher incomes thereafter.

Unfortunately, the gender pay gap in the UK is exacerbated if a woman chooses to have children. Research by the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies implies the gap between male and female earnings increases from 10% before childbirth to 33% by the time the child reaches his or her 12th birthday.

Often, due to societal norms or the pre-existing fact that females are likely to earn less than their male counterparts, the responsibility of primary caregiver following childbirth is usually taken up by the child’s mother. It is often more likely to be the mother who sees her working hours and income potential reduced in consequence.

Simultaneously, upon returning to work, the father of the child can be more likely to be able to continue to work as before with the same hours and income. The father thus also can more easily access opportunities such as career progression and increased earnings.

With the introduction of a four-day working week where both parents’ hours are reduced in line with that of a part-time worker with a full-time income, the need for one parent to reduce their working hours to become a primary caregiver may disappear.

The policy gives each parent an extra day off from work, which should encourage the equal division of caregiving responsibilities. More men would be able to commit to a day of childcare, meaning their partners would be freer to make their own choices about part-time versus full-time work.

With a uniform reduction of hours, both parties (extraneous factors not withstanding) are also afforded the same opportunity of career progression and the equal chance of improving their own earnings.

Instead of negotiating employment opportunities and earnings on time worked, workers of any gender and parental status could negotiate on output. This could help level the playing field and reduce the wage disparity previously highlighted .

It should be added that the experiment at Perpetual Guardian was considered so successful that the company made the shift to a four-day work week permanent.

When advocating the four-day week, however, supporters normally point to the business benefits highlighted previously — with only a nod to its greater societal implications.

Jamie Beauvais is a writer on topics including societal betterment and wealth disparity.

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