TIME equality

What Our Culture of Overwork Is Doing to Mothers

Zia Soleil—Getty Images

Just as women were catching up to men in the workplace, the rules changed again

A slew of new research suggests that equality between the sexes, the rise of which seemed to stop in the ’90s like a three-day old helium balloon, is back in the ascendant. But it also suggests women aren’t paid as much as men because of the longer hours that are now required of employees to get ahead.

In one of several papers released for an online symposium on gender balance by the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF), researchers analyzed data from the General Social Survey, which monitors attitudes in the U.S. toward various social trends. They found that after a negative turn in the late 1990s and early 2000s, attitudes toward working mothers had become more positive in recent years. In 2012 fewer people believed that working mothers were less ideal than stay-at-home mothers, had a lower chance of bonding with their children and that their preschool kids suffered for their absence.

In one of the biggest changes, only a third of the people surveyed in 2012 (down from 42% in 2000) think that the best type of family set-up is the so-called traditional one: where the father is the breadwinner and the mother is the one who turns it into little sandwiches with the crusts cut off then cleans it all up afterward.

But according to researchers at Indiana University Bloomington (IU), changes in heart about working mothers are only a subsection of the path leading to equal pay. In a little-noticed study published in April’s issue of the American Sociological Review, the authors pointed to the culture of “overwork” as one of the drivers of lower pay for women. “One reason for the stall in gender equity during the 1990s was a change in typical work weeks and remuneration patterns,” wrote Youngjoo Cha, assistant professor of sociology at IU in a companion brief for the CCF symposium. “This period saw a significant rise in ‘overwork,’ the practice of consistently working 50 hours or more a week, along with a dramatic increase in the financial incentives for working long hours.”

Cha’s research suggests that, along with the higher rewards offered, higher expectations for productivity have been placed on salaried workers. Because mothers, who tend to be the primary parents, feel pressure to be at home and with their children, they sometimes cannot find the extra 10 to 15 hours in their week to keep up with these expectations, nor can they reap the rewards. ‘These trends may have encouraged some couples to revert to a more traditional division of labor, by increasing the likelihood of wives’ quitting their jobs and prioritizing husbands’ careers,” writes Cha.

Moreover the “overwork” trend creates a bit of a vicious cycle, in which those who cannot keep up with the pace, but do not wish to, or cannot afford to leave full-time employment get seen as lazy or less productive. Sociologist Joan Williams refers to the new “ideal worker norm,” in which employees are expected to be available around the clock on any day of the week, whether by email or phone or in person. “Those who do not work long hours, or those who take time off from work for family responsibilities,” says Cha, “are viewed as uncommitted, not serious about their careers, and lacking in loyalty to the organization.” So they tend to get left high and dry when promotion and bonus time comes around.

“As of 2007, 17% of men, but only 7% of women were working 50 or more hours a week,” writes Cha in the report. The “overpay” that the mostly men are receiving for their “overwork” could account for as much as 10% of the pay gap since 2007.

The upshot is, that while attitudes toward mothers who work outside the home may have softened, there seems to be a keep-up or shut-up system in place at the office. This doesn’t just affect women of course, but, as even successful women can tell you, the social penalties for being an too-busy-to-parent father are much lower than those for the too-busy-to-be-parent mother.

It wasn’t all grim news on the gender front though. The gap between the views of liberals and conservatives on the role of mothers has been narrowing, for one. “In fact, during the ‘restart’ of the gender revolution in the 2000s the greatest increase in the extent of egalitarian views has occurred among conservatives,” writes David Cotter, professor and chair of sociology at Union College in New York, one of the authors of the study on attitudes toward working moms.

And from the home office, a happy bulletin. That whole when-housework-is shared-there’s-no-nooky story that made waves recently? That’s based on old data, according to another paper. When looking at data from 2006 “couples who shared domestic labor had sex at least as often, and were at least as satisfied with the frequency and quality of their sex, as couples where the woman did the bulk of the housework,” wrote Sharon Sassler, a professor in policy analysis and management at Cornell University. “It’s good news for couples, not bad, that men have more than doubled the amount of housework they do since the 1960s.”

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