Working hours again: UK and US

The recent IFS report on the gender pay gap attracted huge coverage – top of the news, and all over the front pages.  It’s the first of a series the Institute is doing on this issue, which is excellent news;  I look forward to seeing what comes out.

The report does an excellent job in distinguishing between the various types of wage gap, in two major respects.  First, it shows the need to distinguish different groups according to the hours they work.  Obviously, the hourly difference is far smaller than the weekly difference, since women work fewer hours: it shrinks from 36% to 19%.  It shrinks further, to 16%, for those who work 20+ hours – ‘half-timers’ as the IFS calls them.



Secondly, the report shows how the gap increases over the life cycle .  It start off small, but grows, at an increasing rate, over time.    As readers of the blog will know, for me the life course perspective is essential:  it is only by understanding what happens over the full 4 to 5 decades of a working life that we will get to the right solutions.   The gap opens up over time because men carry on working full-time , when many women stop working or shift to part-time. The rational explanation for the gap is that men gain more work experience, and are rewarded for this.  But there is experience and experience. The crucial IFS finding is about the cumulative impact of experience:

 “it is only full-time paid work which has substantial benefits in terms of the accumulation of experience that allows workers to command higher wages in future.” (my stress)

Apparently there is some magic potion that turns the hours of a full-time worker into something far more valuable than the hours of the part-timer.

I happened the same day across an  excellent blog from Ben Casselman on the position in the US.  Why are women no longer catching men up on pay?   The narrowing of the pay gap has slowed to almost nothing in the last decade.  The answer, it turns out, is that wage differences are highest amongst those working over 50 hours a week – and these are, of course very preponderantly men.  Ben cites research which shows  that in the early 1980s, fewer than 9 percent of workers (13 percent of men, 3 percent of women) worked 50 hours per week or more. By 2000, over 14 percent of workers (19 percent of men and 7 percent of women) did so.  These overtimers tend to earn more per hour than other groups.  This effect – the overtime effect –  wipes out the educational advantage that women have gained over decades.

The same research, by Youngchoo Cha and Kim Weeden, makes the point that this is not the result of some inherent value in overtime working.  It is, they say, because

 “long work hours have  become embedded in organizational practices, workplace cultures, and beliefs about what it means to be an ideal worker in the contemporary economy. Many employers expect workers to be available whenever clients or supervisors need them, and companies facilitate this 24/7 availability…Employees are also complicit in ratcheting up expectations surrounding work hours, often treating long work hours as a way to signal loyalty and commitment to an organization or occupation and as a source of status in and outside of work.”

So it’s a matter of organisational culture and managerial practice.  And therefore it’s changeable.   Commitment to work has no inherent tie to working long hours (or, to put it the other way round, not working long hours does not signal low commitment); and experience does not only come from working over 20, or over 50 hours in the week.  If mosaic careers are to flourish, the little bits need to be valued as much as the big chunks.

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