This paper is part of the Council on Contemporary Families Gender Revolution Rebound SymposiumThe growing wage premium for long work hours slows progress toward gender equality. If the relative hourly wages for overwork had stayed constant between 1979 and 2007, the gender gap in wages would be about 10% smaller than it is today.

The new data presented by David Cotter and his co-authors suggest that support for gender equality and respect for women’s ability to combine work and family have resumed their upward progress. Other evidence reveals that millennial men express greater interest in more involved fatherhood and want more balance between work and family than previous generations. However, it remains to be seen whether these ideological changes will substantively reduce such structural inequalities as men’s continuing earnings advantage over women and women’s underrepresentation in highly paid occupations.

The rise in overwork

Image via Kevin Dooley via Flickr Creative Commons.
Image via Kevin Dooley via Flickr Creative Commons.

My research with Kim Weeden suggests that one reason for the stall in gender equity during the 1990s was a change in typical work weeks and remuneration patterns, which could reinforce a gendered division of labor in many households. This period saw a significant rise in “overwork,” the practice of consistently working 50 hours or more a week, along with a dramatic increase in the financial incentives for working long hours. My earlier research suggests that these trends may have encouraged some couples to revert to a more traditional division of labor, by increasing the likelihood of wives’ quitting their jobs and prioritizing husbands’ careers.

The history and significance of overwork

Since salaried workers are not directly paid for overtime, those who put in longer hours than their coworkers, at the same salary level, may end up being paid less per hour. And in fact, in the 1970s, workers who put in 50 or more hours per week earned less per hour than comparably educated and experienced workers who worked an ordinary full time shift. As of the early 1980s, fewer than 9 percent of workers put in 50 hours per week or more.

In the mid 1990s, however, employees who worked long work weeks began to receive wages so much higher than their regular full-time counterparts that they actually earned more per hour. This wage premium for overwork has continued to increase since then. By 2009, overworkers were earning about 6 percent more per hour than their full-time counterparts. This creates a substantial incentive for overwork – and a substantial penalty for working “just” full-time.

Overwork as a vicious cycle

Looks like he's got a big job ahead of him. Photo by The Preiser Project, Flickr CC.
Looks like he’s got a big job ahead of him. Photo by The Preiser Project, Flickr CC.

Overwork also creates a vicious cycle, in that the more workers take advantage of the financial rewards of overwork, the less other workers are seen as productive. This exacerbates what Joan Williams calls the “ideal worker norm,” in which workers are seen as truly dedicated only when they give undivided attention to work and are willing to be on call 24/7, whenever their employer, supervisor, colleagues, or clients need them. Those who do not work long hours, or those who take time off from work for family responsibilities, are viewed as uncommitted, not serious about their careers, and lacking in loyalty to the organization.

Overwork helps explain the gender wage gap

The growing wage premium for long work hours, we believe, has slowed progress toward gender equality. Because women’s work hours are generally more limited by their greater responsibility for childcare and housework, there is a consistently large gender gap in who is willing and able to work long hours. Women are less likely to benefit from this rising wage premium for overwork and to reap the rewards for being an “ideal worker.” As of 2007, 17 percent of men, but only 7 percent of women, were working 50 or more hours a week.

Our analysis indicates that if the relative hourly wages for overwork had stayed constant between 1979 and 2007, the gender gap in wages would be about 10 percent smaller than it is today. The effect of the rising relative hourly wages for overworkers on the gender wage gap trend was large enough to essentially offset the pay-equalizing effect of women’s gains in educational attainment during this period!

It is encouraging to learn that approval of more egalitarian work and family arrangements has been growing again and is especially strong among millennials. But in order to turn this ideological progress to a reduction in structural inequalities such as the gender gap in pay, employers and policy-makers need to recognize that the majority of workers have children, older parents, and/or working spouses and to set a more realistic standard for what constitutes a “good worker.”

July 30, 2014

Youngjoo Cha is in the sociology department at Indiana University–Bloomington. She studies the sources of gender inequalities in labor market processes and institutional contexts.