How working long hours affects the wage gap

In the past 30 years, US women have become more educated, outperforming men in university graduation rates. During that time, the disparity between the percentages of women and men working full-time has shrunk considerably too – and yet the pay gap persists, a topic this blog has tackled in the past.

According to a new study by sociologists from Indiana University and Cornell University, one of the biggest contributing factors to the wage gap is the phenomenon of “overworking” – which means working 50 hours a week or more.

The study, using data collected by the US Census Bureau, found the relative hourly wage of overworkers compared with that of full-time workers had increased substantially over the past three decades, but because a greater percentage of male workers were overworking, this change benefited men much more than women. Today, women earn an estimated 81 per cent of what men are paid.

According to Youngjoo Cha, a sociologist at Indiana University who contributed to the study, even women who are employed full-time typically have more family obligations than men, which limit their capacity for putting in gruelling hours at the office.

“Women spend more time working for their family – including caregiving – which limits their ability to work longer hours at their jobs,” she says. “Because our labour force values those who work long hours, women are at a disadvantage.”

This is true especially in managerial-level jobs. In the so-called greedy occupations – doctors, lawyers and upper-level managers, for instance – workers are evaluated based on their face time at the office, according to Cha, who specialises in gender and labour markets. It is no coincidence that these jobs tend to come with the fattest pay cheques, too.

“In our culture, ideal workers are those who put in long hours and completely devote their time and emotions to their jobs,” she says. “In these top-end occupations, this phenomenon is most pronounced. Workers are bound by stronger norms, and if they don’t live up to those norms, they are penalised. Lawyers who don’t bill enough hours, for example, don’t progress and don’t make partner.”

Other nuggets from the survey:

  • In 1979, 15 per cent of men and 3 per cent of women worked 50 hours or more per week. These percentages peaked in the late 1990s at 19 per cent of men and 7 per cent of women. The percentage for men decreased slightly during the 2000s, possibly due to the effects of the recession on occupations overrepresented by men, and remained stagnant for women.
  • The real wages of men who worked 50 hours or more per week increased by 54 per cent between 1979 and 2009. The wages of women who worked the same hours increased, too, by 94 per cent. The wages of standard full-time workers (35 or more hours, but less than 50 hours) increased by 13 per cent for men and by 46 per cent for women between the same years.
  • The rising price of overwork slowed the decrease in the gender wage gap by 9.2 per cent between 1979 and 2007. The effect is large enough to offset the gains achieved by narrowing the education gap.

There is no easy solution, Cha says. “The way I see it, this is a problem that will only be changed by our cultural expectations. Society still views men as the main breadwinners and women as the primary caregivers.

“When we talk about greedy occupations, it’s important to recognise that family is a greedy institution that requires [time, energy and devotion]. We need to attack this problem structurally and recognise that both parties are in the workforce and have responsibilities at home.”



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