How Long Hours Keep Gender Segregation Alive

Jobs that expect employees to work overtime perpetuate gender segregation in occupations, a new study has found — and it’s affecting mothers most of all. posted on

A study out of Indiana University found that “overworking,” or working hours above and beyond the standard 40-hour full-time work week, contributes to the persistence of gender segregation in occupations, with the main result being that woman are frequently pushed out of male-dominated careers.

Study author Youngjoo Cha, a sociologist at Indiana University, noted that the proportion of employees who work long hours (and are pressured to do so more frequently) has continued to rise over the past 50 years, and further, that overworking is generally praised and rewarded in the workplace. However, because women are still expected to carry the brunt of housework and child rearing, men’s and women’s ability to meet these expectations must necessarily differ.

Cha hypothesized that an enforced expecation of overwork favors male workers (and male-dominated occupations) by rewarding those workers most free from familial obligations and effectively pushing out those who, seeking to meet overwork demands, experience more work-family scheduling conflicts — almost all of whom are likely to be women.

Indeed, the professions that tend to value overworking — and to view working longer hours as a proxy for productivity and commitment to the job — are typically male-dominated and male-led. And because women are typically less able to work as many hours as men in these fields, they’re often shifted down the professional ladder as a result. Cha writes, for example, that women working in finance at investment banks frequently move (or are encouraged to move) to administrative positions, which have shorter hours.

The study found that overworking mothers leave male-dominated occupations at higher rates than women who aren’t mothers, but that both groups are affected at rates substantially higher than men.

Cha notes that this pattern continues to exist at a time when much of the traditional “separate sphere” family design (with a working, breadwinner father and a stay-at-home, caretaker mother) has eroded — the study notes that dual-earner families make up the majority of the American workforce and that 40% of all mothers are their family’s primary breadwinner. Still, cultural ideas about the traditional family play a substantial role in the way labor is divided: Even when women are their family’s primary breadwinners, they still spend 30% more time with their children than their husbands and make most of the family child-rearing decisions.

These findings might help explain why women continue to face inequalities in both earnings and professional status, especially in male-dominated fields. If men at the top of male-dominated professions define productivity in terms of long hours, they may end up pushing out women who have family obligations — meaning these professions stay male-dominated and their work cultures never have an impetus to change.

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