How Rigid Schedules Exacerbate the Pay Gap

In a comprehensive, illustrated explainer on the gender pay gap, Vox editor Sarah Kliff liberally references the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, which gives insight into the less intentional or obvious factors that lead to women earning less money than men. One of these factors is time: “Certain hours are more important than others in some jobs — and those jobs have especially high wage gaps.” Why is that?

Goldin’s research has found that workers in the industries with large wage gaps are more likely to say their jobs value those who “develop constructive and cooperative working relationships” and that their company generally determines their “tasks, priorities, and goals.” Workers in these industries often face steep penalties for any interruption to their career. One study estimates that among lawyers, a year out of the labor force causes an 8.4 percent salary reduction. …

There are millions of jobs in America that demand very specific hours from very specific people. Most of the economy is organized around a set 9-to-5 schedule. Those jobs generally worked great 50 years ago. Back then, nearly every American worker had a wife at home to manage anything that might interrupt a workday. … But these silent partners are becoming increasingly rare. Most mothers of young children work now.

And as we know, mothers in two-working-parent families are still much more likely than their male partners to take on the bulk of child-rearing work—although this parenting gap is gradually narrowing. This means they are often unable to spend a specific (and long) set of hours in the office without sacrificing their children’s welfare and development, which most parents understandably don’t want to do. This in turn leads women to scale back their hours or take career breaks, and that’s how the incur the motherhood penalty. So what can be done to fix this? Kliff points to Goldin again, suggesting that if working mothers had more choice in where and when they worked, they might not have to pay that penalty:

Goldin’s research suggests that the best way to tackle the wage gap is by implementing policies that make all hours equally valuable — or at least taking steps in that direction. This might mean moving away from the traditional schedules we’ve become used to, the 9-to-5 hours that became standard when most workers had a spouse at home to handle the emergencies of daily life. It also means not giving disproportionate rewards to those willing to work the longest, either. Numerous studies find that long hours aren’t always productive. One study published last year found that managers couldn’t tell the difference between those who worked an 80-hour week and those who pretended to.

Policymakers are starting to get wise to this idea that flexibility might help close the gap. In a report earlier this year, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee in the UK Parliament recommended that the government require employers to offer flexible hours in all roles unless they had a compelling business reason not to.

Mothers aren’t the only employees who benefit from flexibility, though. For knowledge workers, it’s one of the greatest boons of the Internet and digital technologies: Studies consistently show that employees with flexible work arrangements are happier, and they’re often more productive as well. With this in mind, Mark Lukens makes an interesting argument at Fast Company, casting flexibility as a form of corporate social responsibility that can pay big dividends in terms of both business performance and public image:

By giving your employees the latitude to do their jobs in a way that suits their lifestyles, so long as they keep up their performance, companies show they they care about what’s good for their employees, not just themselves. And that sends a message extending into the wider world that you’re not putting money before people—that you believe that what’s good for people is also good for profits. If a company claims to pride itself on social responsibility, there’s no better place to start.

It’s great to create socially responsible products and services, whether that’s fair trade coffee, environmentally sustainable technology, or financial services for the disadvantaged. But if your social responsibility is focused entirely on your customers, then you’re missing out on helping the people whose lives you most directly influence—your employees.

Flexible working practices are about making your employees’ lives easier. Tasks important to their well-being, like visiting the doctor or dropping the kids off at school, become much less difficult to manage. This makes for employees who are happier, healthier, and less stressed. That’s a worthy goal all by itself.