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Peddling the "ideal worker" myth damages women's careers

ROSE COOK: Long hours cultures holds women and men back in the workplace

Rose comment piece

Not being able to work excess hours is felt to undermine both men and women’s careers according to a new survey conducted by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership and Ipsos Mori.

The survey, which asked over 20,000 people in 27 countries what they thought damaged people’s careers, revealed that 54% of UK respondents thought that being unable or unwilling to work beyond normal working hours was equally likely to damage one’s career regardless of gender. However, where people picked sides, they were more likely to say this would be damaging for women (22%) compared with 6% who said this would be more harmful for men.

What makes this worrying is that we already know women, especially mothers, are more likely to be unable or unwilling to work excess hours. Where there is a choice between who works long hours and who steps back within a heterosexual couple with children, it is typically women who reduce hours, even when they have similar earnings potential to their partners. According to recent ONS figures, around three in 10 mothers (28.5%) said they “reduced working hours” because of childcare, while just one in 20 (4.8%) of fathers said they did this.

The perceptions in this latest survey echo the findings of our research from the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, published in October 2019. These highlighted that reduced working hours can lead to penalties for women including low wages, a lack of progression, as well as discrimination and stigma, which may be part of what is driving the increasing trend for female self-employment.

In contrast, men are increasingly gaining an “overwork premium”, so much so that men’s overtime hours are said to be fuelling the gender pay gap, especially within some heterosexual couples with children, where women reducing their working hours (and thus their pay and prospects) enables men to increase theirs exponentially.

But what happens to men who opt out of longer hours? Though very few of our survey respondents thought men were likely to suffer more than women, the chances are that in the current culture of work they may suffer just as much. A 2016 study showed that US men who work part-time are perceived as less competent and committed, facing heavy penalties when job-seeking. The “ideal worker” – a person who can dedicate their entire self to work with no other demands on their time – is a masculine norm, with men who don’t fulfil it suffering stigma and even ridicule.

High profile cases such as two senior men at the insurance company Aviva who work in a job share  –  suggest that men can still maintain a career while opting for an alternative working pattern. Yet, while such men should be applauded, they are still extremely rare. According to the ONS’s most recent statistics, where children are under 5, the most common working pattern is still for women to work part-time and men full-time. Overall, 40% of women but just 13% of men work par- time. Yet this is not inevitable – there are wide variations in men and women’s working hours internationally that don’t always conform to this pattern.

What’s more, while individuals may gain income and career progression for putting in excess face-time, they won’t be any happier or more productive, casting doubt on the idea that the employee who works all hours is really the “ideal worker”. Recent research suggests that working just 8 hours a week is enough to gain the wellbeing benefits of employment. While this would be an extreme change from the current 40-hour UK average there is scope for the working week to be drastically reduced, particularly in the face of automation-associated job losses.

And what about those who can’t work excess hours for other reasons, like chronic illness, caring for a relative, or simply wanting some work-life balance? It should be possible for them to contribute to society, pursue and achieve their career goals, and maintain their economic stability.

We need to start acknowledging that everyone has responsibilities outside work and should not lose out from fulfilling them. We need employers to recognise that there is no such thing as the ideal worker, and implement policies that prevent people from being marginalised when they step outside the norm, creating new norms that enable everyone to flourish inside and outside the workplace.

Rose Cook is a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Institute for Women's Leadership.