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4 reasons Canada needs part-time work for all

Universal part-time work would alleviate gender inequality, give parents more time with their kids, and teach men emotional intelligence

It has been decades since the feminist movement of the 1960s exploded across the world demanding gender equality. Though much has changed, gender inequality remains profound.

Canadian women don’t earn as much as men, single mothers own less than half the wealth of single fathers, and the victims of domestic abuse are overwhelmingly women.

The United Nations predicts that if we continue on the same path we’re currently on, global gender equality will not be reached for 300 years, and 180 in Canada. Why is this inequality so stubborn?

Feminist scholars have long pointed out that the heart of the problem is the gendered division of labour. One side of the problem is cultural: deep-seated norms about men’s and women’s roles assert that care work overwhelmingly done by women shouldn’t be paid. The other side of the problem is economic: our workplaces are shaped and structured according to the idea that good jobs are necessarily full-time and inflexible.

The two pillars reinforce each other, which is why gender inequality has been so hard to change. It is maddeningly difficult to change the culture if people’s working patterns are frozen. And it’s just as difficult to change the structures of work if people’s attitudes remain starkly gendered.

Corporate feminists offer a range of self-help proposals for women to “have it all,” such as leaning in, using Zoom to work from home, changing their demeanour, hiring a nanny, or bargaining more aggressively. But until these ideas start to challenge the root of the problem—the devaluation of care and the inflexible structure of work—they will remain superficial at best, and at worst, they will blame women for their own inequality.

One real solution is high-quality, flexible, part-time work for all. We need a culture shift so that everyone—truly everyone—does at least some care, either for their own families or for others in their communities. Brain surgeons, CEOs and even the prime minister need to do some unpaid care. If the people who set the norms and expectations for everyone else refuse to do care work themselves, we know that it will continue to be displaced onto the shoulders of women and racialized people, and nothing will ever change.

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Institutionally, jobs need to change too. Everyone needs the opportunity to work part-time. Full-time jobs need to be made shorter and more flexible, and the part-time jobs that already exist need to offer higher pay and more opportunities for advancement. All of this needs to be undergirded by high-quality public services, guaranteeing robust economic security for everyone.

Clearly, this won’t happen overnight. But until it does, caregivers (who are overwhelmingly women) will remain unequal forever.

In countries such as Denmark, part-time workers earn the same wages as full-timers as well as benefits and generous social services. An economy based on part-time work could transform society. Credit: Unsplash

Here are four crucial reasons why the current system has to change:

1. Parents are overwhelmed

The first few years of parenthood are supposed to be a high point of one’s life. Not only can babies bring joy, love and purpose, but most parents have children in their 30s when they’re as healthy and energetic as they’re ever going to be. Yet the reality today is that practically every parent is overwhelmed, stressed, and exhausted.

Astonishingly, most new parents experience the first year of parenthood as causing a higher degree of unhappiness than if their partner were to suddenly die. Yes, you read that right: parenthood today, in the richest countries the world has ever known, is widely experienced as worse than divorce, unemployment, and even the death of one’s partner.

Though most parents, women in particular, are expected to grin and bear it, the brutal truth is that for many, parenthood brings much more than baby giggles and family portraits: it brings a tidal wave of misery. In Europe, the average woman in a couple with children works a crushing 71 hours when you include her unpaid care, while a fraction of men in the rich countries work as much as 50 hours in a week. In Canada, 44 per cent of mothers say they are at their “breaking point.” Something needs to change.

2. Women are being screwed over

Practically every prestigious and well-paid job comes with one crucial catch: full-time, continuous, inflexible work is non-negotiable.

If you can’t put in long hours, you simply aren’t eligible. Who are these slackers who cannot commit to full-time, non-stop, inflexible work? They’re anyone who has to look after children or aging parents, anyone who has a disabled family member, anyone who needs flexibility when kids get sick, and anyone who has hours of housework to do. In brief, they’re anyone who has care responsibilities. To put it even more bluntly: they’re mostly women.

This is why in graduate schools, law schools, and medical schools, bright young women face the cruellest of choices: do they sacrifice having a family to throw themselves into full-time, inflexible careers, or do they give up careers to have families?

This is a heartbreaking choice.

It’s often said that women “choose” to leave work for family. Yet it would be more accurate to say that, for many, they don’t walk out, they are pushed out. Since women are expected to do the bulk of care work (men typically do only half the amount of childcare work that women do, and only one-quarter of the housework) and since care work requires time off and flexibility, the current requirement of prestigious jobs for long inflexible hours is simply not possible.

Full-time work is inherently sexist. It’s the glass ceiling of our time, though in truth it’s less glass than concrete.

The consequences of getting demoted, “mommy tracked,” or pushed out of the workforce are also devastating for women. Women with care responsibilities face significantly lower wages, more poverty, less political influence, more vulnerability and more abuse from bosses and male partners.

The bottom line is that caregiving women work a ton and receive a pittance. The average woman in a heterosexual couple with kids works 71 hours per week when you include her unpaid work, while the corresponding man works 60 hours. There is a technical term for this phenomenon whereby one group of human beings does more work, while the other receives disproportionate rewards: exploitation.

Universal part-time work could speed up progress towards equality for women, who still do more care work than men. Credit: Unsplash

3. Men are harmed, too

Although women suffer the most from the current division of labour, men are also harmed. One former palliative care worker who studied the regrets of the dying found that on their deathbed, the most common regret from men is that they wished they hadn’t spent so much time working.

Men are socialized into norms of toughness, independence, and workaholism—and from believing that care is degrading, weak, and womanly. As a result, they rarely learn how to become sensitive caregivers or emotionally intelligent human beings.

This has tragic consequences. Many fathers simply miss a large portion of their children’s lives, a loss that can never be recovered. As the feminist sociologist Arlie Hochschild remarks, “The long hours men devote to work and recovering from work are often taken from the untold stories, the unthrown balls, and uncuddled children left behind at home.”

Men who have spent so little time learning how to care for or nurture others are left emotionally scarred and stunted. They are more likely to be violent, less empathetic, and less able to maintain relationships. This is also why men are less likely than women to have good friends.

When a healthy man’s female partner dies, he becomes twice as likely to die himself.

Yet this occurs less than half as frequently the other way around. The explanation is that men’s nutrition and health habits deteriorate without their spouses; men may also fall into loneliness and isolation, whereas female widows are supported by the webs of relationships that they have nurtured through a life of care.

A life without care is not just tragically sad, it is dangerously unhealthy.

4. Policymakers are ignorant

In our society, the people in top policymaking positions—in government or business—are almost always people with very little experience of caregiving. This means that policymakers are, for the most part, ignorant of a core and crucial dimension of human life. That renders them unfit for the job. Just as we should never elect someone to public office or appoint them CEO if they had never before held a job, neither should we endow someone with significant power who has zero experience in caregiving. They are simply unqualified.

That’s why we should insist on the importance of everyone performing care work. The goal is not only to more equitably share its burdens, but also to share its benefits: the skills, knowledge, and dispositions that derive from long hours of caregiving, especially the vitally important capacity of taking the perspectives of others.

The knowledge acquired through direct experience of caregiving—the careful, hands-on, relational sensitivity to another human being’s needs—is an essential attribute for becoming a good, sensitive human being and for being able to make good public policy. How can anyone be expected to make compassionate or empathetic decisions about housing, health care, tax rates, immigration policy or war if they have no clue how to care for other people?

Unfortunately, a society based on good part-time work and part-time care does not yet exist. But every day, we can see more and more sprouts of partial examples.

In the Netherlands, there are now law firms where many of the powerful partners work part-time. Indeed, the Netherlands has been called the world’s first “part-time economy.” Half of the entire population works part-time.

In Denmark, part-time work is almost always good work: part-timers receive robust benefits and pensions, and all kinds of generous public services. Whereas British and American part-time workers make 20 per cent less per hour than an equivalent full-time job; in Denmark, part-time workers earn the same hourly rate as full-timers. Even people working part-time on the minimum wage in Denmark can earn a living wage and live a decent (if modest) life.

With part-time for all, men, women, and non-binary people would be able to balance their work and care requirements in a sustainable way. Everyone would have both their care needs and economic needs met. In addition, female and migrant nannies, cleaners, and carers would no longer be exploited for middle- and upper-class families to get ahead.

Part-time for all is the only surefire way to break down the concrete ceiling. It is the only way for the tempo of our lives to acquire some sanity, for parenting to become the joy it should’ve always been, and for gender equality, at long last, to finally be realized.

Tom Malleson is an associate professor and author (with Jennifer Nedelsky) of Part-Time for All: A Care Manifesto.

Tom Malleson
Tom Malleson
  Tom Malleson is an associate professor of social justice and peace studies at King’s University College at Western University. This article draws on ideas from their new book Against Inequality: The Practical and Ethical Case for Abolishing the Superrich, which is out now from Oxford University Press.
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