Here’s why American women are working themselves to death — and why they should stop
Though it’s a flawed feminist anthem steeped in capitalist dreams and white-collar, middle-class aspiration, Dolly Parton’s 1980 hit song “9 to 5” still plays as an ode to America’s overworked, underappreciated women workers. There’s a certain timelessness to the list of grievances Parton cites: thankless; credit-stealing bosses; underwhelming paychecks for 78 cents on every dollar made by male colleagues; killing yourself slowly to enrich corporate coffers.
If there is anything that might strike today’s working women as particularly dated about the song, it is the obsolete idea that a workday might be firmly bracketed, its hours assured, secure and guaranteed. In an era in which Gallup reveals the American 40-hour workweek is actually far closer to 47 hours — nearly a day longer than it was 35 years ago, when Parton’s song was released— a bonafide 9-to-5 workday now seems almost quaint.
For women, this current culture of overwork brings a unique set of difficulties, challenges and career-success stymying issues. Sure, Parton’s song still ranks as one of the most guilty-pleasure tracks of all time, and I’m sure we all agree it should be a mandatory listing in every karaoke song selection book in this country. (I’m only half-joking, because karaoke is no joking matter.) But as for the song’s retro idea of an 8-hour workday? So much nostalgic fantasy in the wind.
The reality is, Americans don’t just work more than they have in the past, they work more than most of the industrialized world. It’s not exactly breaking news that we spend more hours at the office — or on the assembly line or behind the coffee counter — than our European peers. A 2004 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found Americans work “50 percent more than do the Germans, French, and Italians.” More recent data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that in 2014, Americans outworked several expected other countries, among them Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland and Austria, all countries that (coincidentally, I’m so sure) rank higher than us on the most recent World Happiness survey.
The most surprising discovery of the poll, though, is that we have surpassed Japan, long stereotyped by Americans as a society far more workaholic than our own, in annual hours worked by a tally of 1789 to 1729. That means we’re now collectively putting in more work hours each year than the country where necessity led to the invention of the term karōshi (“death from overwork”).
Yet Japan, at the very least, demands a legal minimum of 10 paid vacation days (though many employers provide more) along with 14 weeks of maternity leave. (The country has also undertaken a more aggressive effort to get new fathers to take advantage of paid paternity leave.) France famously goes even further, offering 30 days of vacation and 16 weeks of parental leave, while Scandinavian countries and Australia and New Zealand top even the French.
Then there’s the United States, where workers have no legal guarantee to any amount of vacation at all — or sick days, for that matter, despite a report finding all those sick people at work ultimately cost the country $160 billion in lost productivity each year. The U.S. has the distinction of being the world’s only industrialized, not to mention rich, nation with no national legislation demanding employers offer maternity leave. And paternity leave? That’s not even part of the national discussion.
Without any legal right to vacation, sick days or maternity leave, nearly a quarter of Americans work jobs that offer no paid time off, per a 2013 study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The study found that part-time workers are “far less likely to have paid vacations (35 percent) than are full-timers (91 percent).”
Here again, women are disproportionately affected, since studies find they outnumber men among part-timers, 61 to 56 percent. The aforementioned equation — the one in which part-time work equals no time off — only makes sense in an imagined America where part-time work schedules are as easy and convenient as the descriptor implies, with workers choosing to labor a few hours each day before spending the rest of their time doing whatever they like.
But in reality, the country’s current employment rolls are filled with an unprecedented number of what the Nation identifies as “involuntary part-timers,” a majority-women workforce whose hours are kept limited by companies seeking to maximize productivity and profits while minimizing employee costs, such as those associated with providing health benefits. As the Nation article points out, the inevitable result of this practice is that “part-time is becoming the new norm for low-wage workers, together with schedules so unpredictable and varying that one can’t easily get another job, or go to school, or be a reliable parent.”
For women working in what might be described as white-collar “professional” fields, technology, changing cultural expectations around work, and for the last few years, recessionary belt tightening now require they do more with less, a series of factors that has given rise to what the New York Times calls a “24/7 work culture.” The Times notes that “[t]he pressure of a round-the-clock work culture — in which people are expected to answer emails at 11pm and take cellphone calls on Sunday morning — is particularly acute in highly skilled, highly paid professional services jobs like law, finance, consulting and accounting.”
Women working in these kinds of fields have always had difficulty ascending the corporate ladder, but the long-held assumption has been the problem might be ameliorated by instituting “family-friendly policies” that allow the workday to be designed for flexibility: telecommuting, unfixed hours and the like. Now research suggests that the real issue is the sheer volume of work, and work hours. Also key are cultural biases and assumptions about women and their ability to “deliver,” regardless of their level of commitment and performance, compared with male peers.
At the heart of the Times piece is a Harvard Business School study titled “Gender & Work: Challenging Conventional Wisdom.” The study finds that “organizations — supported and reinforced by cultural beliefs about intensive mothering — may rely on the work-family narrative as an explanation for women’s blocked mobility partly because it diverts attention from the broader problem of a long-hours work culture among professionals.”
That is, women’s lack of momentum is attributed to differing “choices” made by men and women, not problems with the insane expectations of employers.
The study authors continue, “The readily available work-family narrative allows firms and their members to avoid this reality and the anxieties it creates by projecting the problem exclusively onto women and by projecting the image of a successful employee exclusively onto men.”
Evidence for this came from those interviewed. Take a look at this quote from a male employee who seems to believe that all women are baby machines who are ill-prepared to do the heavy lifting required to excel:
It’s just basic math, right? So you take 100 people. Fifty are women and 50 are men. Twenty-five of the women are going to have kids and not want to work. Twenty-five of the women are going to have kids and might want to work, but won’t want to travel every week and live the lifestyle that consulting requires of 60 or 70 hour weeks.
There are an awful lot of baseless assumptions, and some specious mathematics, going on here. As the researchers themselves noted in responding to this quote, at the very least it indicates a pervasive idea that “motherhood means women are inadequate to the task and explains their relative lack of success.”
And then there’s the damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t double standard for women.
Women who don’t engage in the 24/7 work culture, who cut back on hours, choosing to spend more time with family, are often denied promotions and career advancement. Conversely, those who play the game, so to speak, giving most of their lives to their jobs — and researchers found that there were plenty — are also penalized by employers who measure them against a different yardstick than their male peers. The Times points to a few quotes and their implications in elevating this point:
“What do I want people to worry about when they wake up first thing in the morning?” one male partner said. “For project managers, I want them to worry about the project. Women are the project manager in the home, so it is hard for them to spend the necessary time, energy and effort to be viewed here as senior leaders.”
In some cases, women were looked down on for working the hours necessary to succeed. A female associate said: “When I look at a female partner, it does leak into my thinking: How do I think she is as a mother in addition to how do I think she is as a partner? When I look at men, I don’t think about what kind of father they are.”
And though employers may put less pressure on men to demonstrate they can be great workers as well as great fathers, there’s still a hefty penalty to be paid. (For the record, the men in the study also indicated they found the unstinting hours problematic, but no one assumed they were innately incapable of handling them.) Project: Time Off’s 2013 All Work No Pay study reveals that, across gender, when workers sacrifice time with their families and loved ones for their jobs, their families and other relationships suffer. Robin Ely, one of the Harvard researchers who spoke with the Times, summed up the issue thusly:
“These 24/7 work cultures lock gender inequality in place, because the work-family balance problem is recognized as primarily a woman’s problem. The very well-intentioned answer is to give women benefits, but it actually derails women’s careers. The culture of overwork affects everybody.”
What’s true across the board is that both men and women workers are sleeping less and working more than in recent decades which, incidentally, means our work isn’t nearly as good as it could be. Tired brains, which science tells us inevitably result from working without reprieve for longer and longer, are less creative and inventive, and more mistake-prone. The Harvard Business Review notes that recent studies have found downtime helps us reboot, so we can actually put our work goals in perspective. As the researchers explain, “[w]hen you work on a task continuously, it’s easy to lose focus and get lost in the weeds. In contrast, following a brief intermission, picking up where you left off forces you to take a few seconds to think globally about what you’re ultimately trying to achieve.”
Study after study shows that interrupting the work day for brief intervals of “me time,” taking vacations and getting a full night’s sleep are all key to maximizing productivity. White-collar businesses with employees in high stress, high-skill positions have taken note of this, and people like Arianna Huffington — who happens to be both a woman and one of the most public workaholics of our age — proselytize about the wonders of disconnecting and “digital detoxing.” Mindfulness, as I previously wrote, has practically become a requirement by companies from Procter & Gamble to Google. Yoga is offered in offices across the country. The hope is that employees won’t just mellow out, they’ll also recharge — so they can be better workers. This is all well and good, but it still doesn’t get to the issues at the core of why women keep getting shortchanged in their careers.
With mainstream presidential candidates suggesting Americans should just work a little harder, legal efforts to curb our culture of overwork seem unlikely anytime soon, and its particularly negative impact on women will surely continue. Which is a shame, since America’s days as a labor leader — the yesteryear those candidates often claim they pine for — was built on hard-earned laws that recognized worker importance and the need for us all to have a life. When Dolly Parton sang about working “9 to 5,” she was indicting the many flaws in the system — particularly for women — though not the very structure of the work day itself. Should we ever get an accurate, more up-to-date cover of the song (and let’s keep our fingers crossed that the music industry doesn’t stoop so low), the lyrics would need an intense overhaul. And yet, “working 11 to 11” just doesn’t have as much of a ring to it.