In January, 1914, the Ford Motor Company announced that it would double the pay of its workers to $5 a day, and reduce their shifts from nine hours to eight. The move was met with scepticism. More money? For less work? Did Ford want to see its profits tumble? But of course, its profits didn’t tumble. They doubled in two years, and Ford’s rival motor companies soon followed its example.
It’s a useful reminder that the way we work today didn’t just happen by itself. Many people had to fight for the right to work. Many had to fight so others didn’t have to work! Pay, working hours, working conditions, sick leave, maternity leave, paternity leave, even remote working—all of this and more has had to be negotiated, often due to immediate necessity, but often by remarkable men and women motivated by a desire for justice. Now, we might be standing at the next frontier in the world of work: the four-day working week.
The main arguments in favour of the four-day working week are now quite familiar: more productivity, fewer business expenses, and a lower carbon footprint. But one thing that’s received much less attention is how it stands to benefit women. And this has to do with the gender pay gap. The gender pay gap grows once women have children, and though the incomes of both parents take a hit, women’s incomes often never recover. This ‘motherhood penalty’ often manifests in less pay and fewer opportunities in future because women tend to work fewer hours after children are born, and parental leave policies are often skewed towards women. Even in countries where that isn’t the case, cultural factors can mean that it doesn’t make a difference.
A four-day working week would help by giving women the freedom to spend a day a week with their kid or kids and remain at the same level as their colleagues. Men with children would also be able to have a day of childcare as well, giving them the opportunity to reassess the division in their own lives between work and time out of it. Cultural factors can mean that men feel more pressure to prioritise work commitments over family time and often, personal well-being.
In a more general way, a shorter working week would encourage us all to work smarter, rather than harder. More than half of workers in Britain say they feel stressed at work, and frequent stress has risen across the board since the pandemic. A cultural shift that encourages a more strategic, creative approach to work would liberate many women and men from wearing themselves out while allowing them to express their talents to the fullest. At the conclusion of four-day week trials in Iceland, workers reported less stress and burnout, better health, and a better work-life balance.
But a quick reality check. There are some industries and individuals who need or want to work for more than four days a week. And there are also people who work irregular hours, or who work for themselves. This is a reminder that in business as in life, one-size-fits-all solutions rarely work. All companies and individuals would have to consider what a four-day working week might look like for them, and how their unique context might affect things. Exceptions might need to be made, and everyone’s voices would need to be heard. But as we approach the tipping point on the four-day working week, we might be able to say one thing with certainty: all the evidence suggests that women stand to benefit hugely—and that means a more equal, more just, much happier society