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Work hours and the pay gap

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | June 10, 2014

Twenty-five years ago, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the phrase “stalled revolution” to describe how far American women had come since the 1950s. What she meant (in my reading) is that, although gender relations in America, from workplace to bedroom, had changed radically, the pace of change had slowed tremendously.

The quicksand that bogged the gender revolution down was in the home, argued Hochschild, where the culture of traditional gender roles had women handling a “second shift” of home and parental duties in addition to the jobs they now held.

I was reminded of this influential work by a newly published paper in the American Sociological Review. Youngjoo Cha and Kim A. Weeden ask why, after decades of immersion into the workforce, employed women still make substantially less than men. The pay gap remains even though women now get more education than men and have long been covered by anti-discrimination laws. Many explanations have been offered, from subtler forms of discrimination to women’s shyness. Cha and Weeden present evidence that some of this “stalling” has resulted from changes in the workplace that are pressing all of us to work longer hours.


That the pay gap between men and women lingers has puzzled many observers. (Academics in particular have repeatedly tried to understand why it persists among college faculty.) The failure to close the gap becomes even more puzzling as women race ahead of men in college attendance and graduation, build up more work experience as even new mothers return quickly to work, and traditional male jobs degrade.

A good part of the remaining gap is explained by the different kinds of jobs women and men take  – say teachers and nurses versus police officers and investment traders – and by the different kinds of arrangements – full-time versus part-time – men and women have. For some analysts, however, that explanation just raises another question: Why do women end up in different sorts of jobs?

Furthermore, pay differences between men and women persist even in the same sorts of jobs. Some of that differential, in some settings, can be explained by discrimination. While discrimination has declined and in some professions employers actively seek out women, in various sectors discrimination in hiring and promotion still exists. The recent effort to file a class-action case against Walmart illustrates the issue. Some research points in particular to the emergence of a “motherhood penalty,” discrimination focused on women with children.

From a totally different angle, some observers have argued that the explanation lies in personality – that women generally do not assert themselves sufficiently to command attention and demand appropriate pay. They do not, in Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial phrase, sufficiently “lean in.” Critics have noted, however, that often when women do lean in they, unlike men, are rejected for being “pushy.”

These and other accounts can help explain the residual pay gap. The new Cha and Weeden article adds more.

At work

Cha and Weeden look at 30 years of wage data, 1979 to 2009, to answer the puzzle that the pace of change toward gender equality, which once seemed so rapid, has notably slowed down. In particular, “the gender gap in wages, which, after declining rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s, narrowed only modestly in the 1990s and remained stable through the mid-2000s.” Their answer points to changes in the demands on workers in those years, the increasing expectation that employees, particularly in highly-paid careers, will “overwork,” work more than 50 or more hours a week.

The proportion of Americans who work long hours has increased substantially over the past 30 years. In the early 1980s, fewer than 9 percent of workers (13 percent of men, 3 percent of women) worked 50 hours per week or more. By 2000, over 14 percent of workers (19 percent of men and 7 percent of women) worked 50 hours per week or more. Overwork began to decline in the mid-2000s, but it remains widespread today.

The slowdown in women’s wage gains was especially notable in professional and managerial careers, just the ones where women’s educational advantages should have paid off, but where the stall in pay equality was most evident.

Expansion in “overwork” – net of other changes since 1979 – could have affected the gender gap in two ways: Men could be overworking increasingly more often than women, or the financial payoff to overworking could have increased, or both. In their statistical analysis, Cha and Weeden identify the second factor as critical. In 1979, workers who put in long hours tended to make less per each hour than those who worked full-time; by 2009, that had reversed. Putting in the extra hours now pays off more. Or phrased another way, working “only” full-time now pays off relatively less.

Women remain less likely than men to put in those long hours, even though the payoff for doing so grew, which means that men disproportionately brought in the rising wages paid to overworkers. This explains part of the reason why gender equalization in pay slowed down. The authors estimate that the higher payoff for overwork was large enough to cancel out the gains in wage equality women had made from their growing edge in college graduation and the growing importance of college. The consequences of overwork now paying so well were especially strong among professional and managerial employees (Sandberg’s “lean in” targets).

In sum, Cha and Weeden argue, the American workplace increasingly rewards – and probably expects – overwork; men overwork a lot more often than women; this development helped stall pay equality.

Why didn’t women capitalize on the growing payoff for overworking by working longer hours themselves? The answer, Hochschild might suggest, lies in the continuing understanding that women are responsible for that second shift and cannot put in 50+ hours on the job. (In supplementary analysis, Cha and Weeden report that the overwork dynamic they identified has remain strongest in the 2000s among working parents.) Work-vs-home tensions may also help explain why we have recently seen some retreat from the workplace by college-graduate women.

The Cha and Weeden study suggests that those concerned with closing the wag gap ask two questions: What is happening at the workplace that seems to be pressing people to overwork? What is not happening at home that discourages women from working long hours?

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.