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07 January 2020

The future of work can be gender-equal – but technology is only part of the solution

Laura Jones

LAURA JONES: We need to adopt universal approaches to redesigning work that better suits the lives of women and men

Women at work

This piece was originally written for the Global Institute for Women's Leadership's new Essays on Equality publication, which features contributions on a range of different issues by leading researchers and figures working on gender equality.

Read the full collection of essays

“Don’t worry – you’re totally replaceable” is not a phrase we typically associate with career success. In the context of discussions about the future of work, it may conjure up images of super-smart machines taking human jobs. But for women, it may be the key to finally cracking gender equality at work.

To see why, we must turn to an unlikely source: pharmacists. Analysis by Harvard economist Claudia Goldin shows that, compared with other professional groups, pharmacists have a minimal gender pay gap. Hour for hour worked, male and female pharmacists earn almost the same amount. The reason, Goldin argues, is because pharmacists don’t receive a pay premium for long working hours. When pharmacists work longer, they get paid more – but no more for the 50th hour than for the first.

The reason for this is that pharmacists are replaceable. To you or me, one pharmacist is pretty much the same as another. This means there is little need for them to work exceptionally long hours to meet the needs of their clients (they can just hand over to their colleagues), and they can pick their shifts to fit around their lives without suffering career penalties.

By contrast, in many other industries irreplaceability is a worker’s USP. To their clients, lawyers and consultants are (they hope) one-offs. It would be unprofessional of me to send in John when you’ve hired Jane, so there is a strong incentive for Jane to overwork, as only she can get the job done, and done at the time that suits her client.

In these occupations, hour-for-hour earnings rise as working hours increase, so that consultants working 80-hour weeks earn many multiples of their colleagues working a 40-hour week. You can see the problem here for gender equality. These occupations are also those with the largest gender wage gaps and the largest wage gaps between mothers and childless women.


We must design work so that firms do not have an incentive to pay a premium to those who work long hours."

Laura Jones

The solution, then, to the remaining gender inequality in the labour market (not to mention the negative effects of long hours on physical and mental health) is for all of us to be more like pharmacists. We must design work so that firms do not have an incentive to pay a premium to those who work long hours, and workers have more flexibility over where and when they work. One way that becomes possible is if we become better substitutes for each other.

Surely this should be possible, you might think. After all, workplaces have never been more flexible or mobile, while technology means we are no longer chained to our desks and more of us than ever can work where we like.

But at second glance, things are less clear. While flexibility may be increasing for some, so too are the rewards associated with overwork. Sociologist Youngjoo Cha’s work shows that in the 1970s Americans working more than 50 hours a week experienced an hour-for-hour wage penalty compared with those working up to 40 hours a week. By 2000 this had changed into a premium, and the proportion working these hours had grown. This effect was so strong that it partially cancelled out the gains made by women’s increased education over the same period.

It is easy to point the finger at broad, seemingly unstoppable forces, such as competition in the era of globalisation and the flexibility-enabling technology that means we can now always be “on”, and conclude there is little we can do to stem the tide.

There is cause for qualified optimism, however. As others have argued, technology is not an external, a personal force, but a “crystallisation of society”. Any impetus towards overwork is less to do with the technologies themselves than with the expectations and working practices that have built up around them, and upon which they were built. With that in mind, we can avoid falling into the trap of seeing technology or flexibility as problems or solutions in and of themselves, and towards thinking about changes to job design that can harness their full potential and reduce incentives to overwork.

As the relative premium an occupation places on long working hours rises, so too does the gender gap in wages. The graph above shows the relationship between the gender wage gap in an occupation (y axis) and the relative returns to overwork (x axis). The further down the y axis, the greater the gender pay gap in an occupation. The further to the right along the x axis, the greater the relative premium placed on long working hours in an occupation. Source: Goldin (2014). Data from American college graduates 2009-2011 working in the 95 highest-paying occupations.

Substitutability may simply be a by-product of the way that pharmacies are set up, but it wasn’t always so. 40 years ago most pharmacists ran their own practices, and were forced to live their lives at the beck and call of their customers. Now most are employed by large companies, and advances in information sharing technology and processes mean a seamless service.

It might be hard to think of ways to introduce this logic into other workplaces, but increasingly innovative researchers are partnering with forward-thinking companies to test out ways to do so.

To break the idea that they were unable to perform unless they were available for their clients 24/7, Leslie Perlow and her team at Harvard implemented a programme with a consulting firm mandating that everyone on the team take one night off a week without calls or emails. Despite initial resistance, the teams who took part in the experiment reported greater job satisfaction and increased work performance.

Called in by the bosses of a Fortune 500 company worried about employee burnout and high turnover, Phyllis Moen and Erin Kelly designed a programme to increase employees’ control over where and when they worked, the core of which was to bring employees and managers together to ask creative questions about working processes that had been taken for granted. Compared with control groups, Moen and Kelly’s experimental groups reported less stress and reduced turnover.

The key is that these are universal approaches to redesigning work, rather than alternative practices which offer individual accommodations to a select few individuals (usually women) who suffer career consequences. Tactics such as these, and other practices which guard against the need for long working hours, such as overlapping skillsets, team-based relationships, and the creation of procedures to maximise knowledge-sharing, need to be used alongside more traditional “individual” options such as job-sharing.

These changes are likely to encounter resistance because they are threatening to the identity of senior leaders brought up in the old way of doing things. But this can surely be overcome if we point out the benefits that will likely accrue to companies who can crack this code.

Overwork is not just bad for women; it’s bad for men, too – and translates into increased absenteeism, higher turnover and reduced productivity. This was true in the 19th century. Back then, hard-fought union battles that led to a reduction in the working day from 10 to eight hours were followed by increased productivity and fewer expensive accidents. Similar changes today are likely to have an even greater impact. Who wants to be the last sucker left paying a premium for an exhausted worker?

Laura Jones is a Research Associate at the Global Institute for Women's Leadership.