Levelling the playing field – could a four day work week improve gender equality?

Image by Werner Heiber from Pixabay

With the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine, and the likely lifting of restrictions in the following months, it seems there may finally be some light at the end of the dark tunnel we’ve all been navigating this past year. Of course, it is still unclear whether there can ever really be a return to life before Covid, or whether we will simply have to continue adjusting to this so-called “new normal”. Particularly uncertain is the future of work, and while the conversation revolves primarily around remote working, the prospect of a four-day work week is becoming increasingly topical.

In fact, a recent survey commissioned by Four Day Week Ireland found that almost 80% of respondents support the government giving consideration to such an initiative, with Joe O’Connor, Chairperson of the group, arguing that the transition could have “transformative societal benefits“. Apart from being good for business, the group argues that reduced working hours at the same rate of pay could have a positive impact on the environment and, perhaps surprisingly, could have significant benefits for women.

“Reducing working time would allow men to spend more time with their families”

Orla O’Connor, National Women’s Council

After all, despite having made some meaningful strides towards gender equality in recent years, there is still some room for improvement in Ireland. One study from 2019, for example, found that Irish women continue to bear the brunt of domestic duties and unpaid care work, such as childcare and caring for the elderly or infirm; an imbalance which is reflected across Europe and which has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. With schools and creches closed for the best part of last year, and with women more likely to have experienced job losses due to the current situation, campaigners are becoming increasingly alarmed at a trend which is seeing more and more women pushed out of the workplace and back into the home. Having fought a long battle to achieve greater parity in the workplace, emerging research which suggests this imbalance could lead to “a wider gender remuneration gap” and “potentially fewer economic opportunities for women” is particularly concerning.

So, could a four-day work week help ease the burden on women during the current crisis and beyond? According to Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council, there is no doubt about it. “Reducing working time would allow men to spend more time with their families”, she says, arguing that “this would help remove barriers to women achieving senior positions in work”. Considering women occupy just a tiny fraction of senior roles in Ireland, any move which leads to more opportunities is welcome – although there is no guarantee that this would be the case. Women are still undertaking the lion’s share of unpaid work, despite their participation in the workforce increasing steadily over the past few decades. Though some recent research suggests men are beginning to help more around the house during the pandemic, it remains to be seen whether that one extra day off a week will really make any discernible difference.

We might find out sooner than we thought. Just last week, the Spanish government agreed to trial a four-day work week for interested companies, which could be up-and-running as soon as Autumn. In a country where women regularly spend up to 2.5 hours more per day on unpaid care and domestic work than men, it will be intriguing to see whether the added time off will actually have some tangible benefits. The women of Ireland, I’m sure, will be watching carefully.

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