4 day working weeks, flexible working practices and increased childcare is all the [work] rage. With increasing research into the benefits of a 4 day working week, tech-bros disrupting work all over the shop, and manifestos exploring ways to rework work, we might finally be moving to a place where we understand that paid employment is not the be all and end all of our lives. Welcome to the revolution sisters!
But to quote the great Destiny’s Child: "Question."
Since 2014, there has been a “29 per cent reduction in the use of term-time working and a 35 per cent reduction in job-sharing, which are both overwhelmingly done by women.” Rather than working practices becoming more mum-friendly they are, in many ways, moving backwards. Moreover, work like hospitality, retail and care are overwhelming done by women, and are all sectors that are pretty resistant to flexible working practices due to an unfriendly mash-up of shift work, zero hours contracts, the dying high street and workplace culture. Because of capitalism, when everyone else is off work enjoying themselves, these groups of workers are likely pulling shifts to respond to the leisure needs of everyone else. Coupled together, then, we have a whole load of people who are not going to benefit from this work revolution. As others have rightly noted, whilst this idea is absolutely awesome, it doesn’t tackle some of the big questions about workplace culture like employment segregation, ethnicity, class and gender.
The big wrinkle we need to iron out is what counts as a four day week. The number frequently touted is 30 hours in four days. Which is great...if you work 37 hours already and have time and headspace to work 9ish hours a day. What if you work 28 hours in two different jobs? After all, 42.3% of women work part time and 8.5% are under-employed. So how does their work fit with the workplace revolution? The worry is, of course, that it won’t. That these questions will get parked for too long, and that middle class women in professional roles will get first dibs on more flexible working practices. Yep, we might see some smashing of glass ceilings, but we will see many others left on sticky floors.
Practically, how do we do a 9ish hour work day? What part of our day do we give up in order to work more flexibly? And what counts as work? According to one widely shared - and very relatable - survey, mums already work the equivalent of 2.5 full time jobs. While it’s awesome that more businesses are getting on the flexible working bandwagon, the reality often looks very different, and very stressful.
For many mums, rather than dropping children at school and nursery, going to work, finishing work, caring for your children and then, you know, relaxing, they are instead logging on to catch up until 10, 11, 12 o’clock at night. And starting it all again at 6am. Because of this, they are overworked, sleep deprived and stressed out of their boxes. Thanks to patriarchy, work pressures don’t lessen as caring responsibilities increase, and many women feel as though they need to achieve 100% at work and 100% at home. If they don’t, then it’s their fault and they suck. Women returning to or entering the workplace feel very keenly that they are failing badly at both - that they are contorting themselves into uncomfortable shapes to fit a system wasn’t built for them, and no amount of tinkering will change it. This of course results in poor mental health, stress, guilt and shame, never mind the impact on performance and productivity. I guess women really can have it all!
We don’t live in a culture where naps are encouraged at work, or where duvet days are the norm, so we have some very tired people not performing or feeling their best. Working 9 hours and then some also means women have very little space for leisure and pleasure. If we extend the working day, what else will they give up? A good life is much more than how productive we are. We need to prioritise mothers' right to enjoy themselves more than our economy's need to squeeze every last minute out of them for paid and unpaid work. All mothers. Not just rich ones.
If we agree then that 30 hours in 4 days is the definition of a brand new working week, we also then have to ask about wellbeing, about workplace cultures (and naps), about ethnicity and class, and about education and nursery care. About term dates, after school and holiday provision. We have to ask about the quality of care for wee people, and what increased childcare provision means for them as well as their parents.
I am very into flexible working, compressed hours, and 4 day weeks, but I also want us to ask these tricky questions first, not last. If we don’t ask these questions now, then many, many women will be left behind. We have a chance for a real revolution about work, so let’s make sure we’re asking the right questions now, so we that we can all get the right solutions we need.
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