According to a new study published by some feminist academics at the Australian National University, women risk damaging their health if they work more than 34 hours a week. That’s not because women are the weaker sex, obviously, but because they do more housework and childcare than men, effectively working just as hard but dividing their labour between the office and home. On the back of this, the report’s authors have called for women to be paid the same for working a 34-hour week as men are for a 47-hour week. Until this happens, according to the researchers, women are being forced to choose between their health and gender equality.
On the face of it, this proposal is bonkers. Think of all the small firms — and even some quite large ones — that would go out of business if they had to reduce the number of hours their female employees work without reducing their salaries. And presumably this would be on top of maternity pay. Gender equality is one thing, but under this proposal women would be paid 38.5 per cent more per hour than men.
But then I began to think about it from a purely selfish point of view and realised there might be something to be said for it. Caroline hasn’t had a full-time job since becoming a mum, arguing that the cost of hiring a nanny is prohibitive. To illustrate this, suppose she was able to get a job in PR that paid £40,000 a year and the nanny’s salary was £26,500. After tax, Caroline’s take home pay would be £30,367.20 and the cost of hiring the nanny, if you factor in our National Insurance contribution, would be £29,059.07. So Caroline would effectively be working a 40-hour week for an annual salary of £1,277.76. If you assume four weeks of holiday a year, that works out at just under 67p an hour.
But if Caroline could earn £40,000 for working a 34-hour week, that begins to look more attractive, not least because we could then get away with part-time help. By September next year, when all four of our children will be at secondary school, we could even dispense with paid-for childcare altogether. And here’s the beauty part: Caroline wouldn’t be able to insist I do half the household chores, as she does at the moment, because her employer would, in effect, be paying her to do the housework.
Not all of it, mind you. The researchers at the Australian National University worked out that, on average, women spend an extra two and a half hours a day on housework compared to men, Monday to Friday, and that’s what they want employers to factor in when calculating women’s pay. So when Caroline returned home from work at, say, 4 p.m., she wouldn’t be able to hand me a mop and an apron until 6.30 p.m.
‘That’s sexist,’ said Caroline, when I told her about this ‘feminist’ proposal. ‘It’s saying that women should accept that domestic chores are basically their responsibility. But what if I don’t want to be paid to do the housework? If employers are going to be forced to do this, it should be up to a couple to decide which of them is going to work longer hours. I’ll go for the 47-hour week, thank you very much. You can work for 34 and then come home and do the cleaning, washing and cooking.’
The other problem with this idea is that it might make men and women more equal — sort of — but at the expense of making women less equal. If you reduce the hours but not the pay of women across the board by a fixed amount, you’ll effectively be giving them each the same pay rise expressed as a percentage of their salaries. It’s like a flat tax, but in reverse. Which means that the income gap between women on different salaries will increase. The fact that it’s a regressive benefit might not be a definitive argument against this proposal — after all, some of us quite like flat taxes — but it does suggest the left-wing feminist academics who are advocating it haven’t thought it through.
This is an issue close to my heart at the moment because Caroline has slipped a disc, rendering her more or less immobile. Suddenly, I’m having to do all the housework, as well as the school run. I have tried getting the children to help with the chores, but I think they must have read about this Australian proposal because they are all demanding to be paid. Unfortunately, that would quickly put this sole trader out of business.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.