Flexible work hours may be the key to solving wage gaps

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A paper from the American Economic Review thinks it has some more insight into the cause of the gender wage gap. It’s not sexism, employer discrimination, or really even children. It’s the flexibility (or lack there of) of work hours.

The converging roles of men and women are among the grandest advances in society and the economy in the last century. These aspects of the grand gender convergence are figurative chapters in a history of gender roles. But what must the “last” chapter contain for there to be equality in the labor market? The answer may come as a surprise. The solution does not (necessarily) have to involve government intervention and it need not make men more responsible in the home (although that wouldn’t hurt). But it must involve changes in the labor market, especially how jobs are structured and remunerated to enhance temporal flexibility. The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours. Such change has taken off in various sectors, such as technology, science, and health, but is less apparent in the corporate, financial, and legal worlds. [Emphasis mine.]

The data from this paper is fascinating, and challenges quite a few pre-conceived notions we have about women in the work place. For example, we often think of jobs in the sciences, medicine and maths as being most off-limits to women, but in fact, women make up roughly half of today’s medical graduate enrolments, and actually women lead men in study areas including biological sciences, optometry, and pharmacy.

What’s even more interesting is that the gender pay gap is at its lowest in the tech and science industries. The gap begins to widen when you look at the health industry, and it spikes when you look at the business industry.

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The paper, “A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter” argues that this is because the tech and science industries are more suited to flexible work hours, presumably because the quality of one's work output is based on results; whereas the business industry demands the constant slog of long work hours and 'face-time' - things which their clients have come to expect, and things that can be much harder for women to do if they are trying to manage both a family and a job at the same time. Claudia Goldin, author of the report, notes "a flexible schedule often comes at a high price, particularly in the corporate, financial, and legal worlds...there will always be 24/7 positions with on-call, all-the-time employees and managers, including many CEOs, trial lawyers, merger-and-acquisition bankers, surgeons, and the US Secretary of State. But, that said, the list of positions that can be changed is considerable."

Workplace culture has been changing for years– jeans, pets, and company-sponsored Red Bull fridges are becoming widely established. A move towards flexible hours is becoming more relevant too, especially in some of the most innovative industries. Perhaps our best bet to solving wage gap issues is to encourage employers to adopt more flexibility (for both men and women) in the many industries that could suit, and even benefit, from it.