Part III gender Issues Looking Ahead 9 Work–Life Balance Learning Objectives

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Part III
Gender Issues
Looking Ahead

9 Work–Life Balance
Learning Objectives
After completing this chapter, the reader will:
• understand the pressures confronting working adults (especially working women) that cause work–life imbalance.

• understand the different perspectives (models) of the work–non-work relationship.

• understand the effect of an “unbalanced” life on health.

• be familiar with cross-country comparisons of work–life balance.

• understand the benefits that accrue to organizations that provide work–life balance.
The Importance of Work–Life Balance for Women
Many variations on the definition of work–life balance appear in the management and social-science literature. Some focus on the importance of equal time between family roles and work roles. Other definitions, rather than focusing on equal time commitment between these two roles, suggest that work–life balance depends on fulfillment, satisfaction, and energy available for the multiple roles that an individual fills (Kalliath & Brough, 2008). And still others suggest that balance in three areas is important: equality between work and family in terms of time, involvement, and satisfaction with the role (Greenhaus, Collins, & Shaw, 2002). Still other definitions have expanded the meaning beyond just balance between work and family, to the balance between work and non-work. This definition recognizes that single or married adults without children also need balance in their lives (Kalliath & Brough, 2008). Work–life balance can be viewed over a day, a week, or over a much longer period of time. At various stages in one’s life, balance may be more important than at other times. For example, a woman may feel she needs more balance when she is trying to juggle the demands of early motherhood than when she is 50 and her children are grown up. She may need more time later in life when she is caring for an aging parent. No matter which definition of work–life balance is chosen, the element of time is involved in all of them. Lack of time for work or family will affect satisfaction, energy, and involvement in either role. Because of women’s greater time commitment in family and domestic chores, they stand to be more affected than men by an imbalance between work and other pursuits.

More women are working today than ever before, yet women continue to shoulder most of the demands at home, whether they are taking care of children, cooking, cleaning, or running errands. Several demographic factors have contributed to the pressures on women and made these pressures greater for them than for men. First, women are more often single parents dealing with the financial strain and pressures of bringing up children on their own. In 2006, there were 12.9 million one-parent families in the US, of which 10.4 million were single-mother families (US Census Bureau, 2006b). Single mothers have a multitude of tasks to accomplish in any given day, without the support of a partner. Second, in 2005 the average age that women in the US had their first child was 25 (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2005). This coincides precisely with the time that women are trying to launch careers. Experts have recognized the importance of early childhood education on a child’s cognitive and social development, and the importance of a mother bonding with her infant. Because of the importance of involvement with children at their most formative years, women will be more reluctant to leave a new-born or a young child for long periods of time. At the same time, they will feel the importance of proving themselves in their chosen career. Without the social support of a spouse, affordable childcare, extended family, and a workplace that supports parents, women will find it difficult to find a balance between work and family. A study of 623 men and women found that, for men, an increase in work-time investment reduced their time devoted to family, but an increase in a family-time investment did not affect time devoted to their work. For women, however, an increase of time in either role reduced the time devoted to the other role (Edwards & Rothbard, 2003). This study and others shared in this chapter will show that work–life balance is of particular concern to women.

Women experience different kinds of work–life pressures depending on their life circumstances. Women with young children need to find affordable childcare and make arrangements to drop off their children and pick them up according to the schedule of their daycare provider, while women with school-age children have to arrange to get them to after-school activities. Parents of teenagers may feel it important to have an adult presence at home during after-school hours. All parents have to make special arrangements when school hours are not synchronized with work hours; teacher work-days, breaks during the school year, and summer holidays make it difficult for working parents who may not be able to take time off from work to be with their children.

At the same time as women have increased their participation in the workforce, companies have asked employees to give more of their time. It is not uncommon in some industries and in some jobs for women to work 70–80-hour weeks. This increase in work commitment is particularly hard on women who are single mothers or who do not have partners who share equally in family responsibilities.

Over-Employment: An Obstacle for Work–Life Balance
Before individuals on their own or with the help of organizations can act to provide a healthier balance between work and non-work, they will have to appreciate the root causes that disrupt the balance. As one of the main causes, some scholars have examined the concept of “over-employment,” defined as a worker’s inability to obtain reduced hours despite a willingness to proportionately sacrifice income (Golden, 2006). In the US, several large data sets have been used to estimate the percentage of employees willing to give up income in exchange for reduced hours. The General Social Survey and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics estimate that between 6% and 10% of employees are willing to reduce their hours for more free time (Kahn & Lang, 1995; Reynolds, 2003). Other estimates from different surveys are much higher; among workers on a fixed hourly schedule, over 50% were willing to sacrifice some income for reduced hours (Feather & Shaw, 2000). When asked whether they would prefer a raise or more time off, 37% responded “time off ” (Schor, 1994). Friedman and Casner-Lotto (2003) found that 27% of unionized and 39% of non-unionized employees would exchange pay for more time off.

Several reasons have been postulated for over-employment in the United States. First, there is a growing use of compulsory overtime practices by employers (Golden & Wiens-Tuers, 2005). Second, since healthcare is a per-employee cost, the escalating cost of healthcare provides an incentive for employers to hire fewer workers and increase the number of hours each worker works. Because healthcare costs are rising faster than any employee-related cost, organizations have a financial incentive to try to reduce the number of employees and thereby reduce their overhead cost. Third, in today’s global business environment, companies have an incentive to increase working hours for their employees, because extending production times reduces the average costs in manufacturing, and extending hours in the service sector is a way of responding to customer demands. Fourth, the reduced power of the labor unions makes it more difficult for employees to negotiate reduced hours, especially when the supply of workers exceeds demand. Employees feel the pressure to work longer hours as employers demand greater productivity owing to the global spread of technological capabilities. For example, workers in India can provide programming expertise to US companies, and call centers can operate from anywhere in the world, making it easy for employers to exercise the threat of shifting jobs overseas.

The growing trend in the United States supports what Jacobs and Gerson (2004) refer to as a “time divide.” The “time divide” describes a situation in which workers either work full-time with little flexibility and with the rising demand of more hours or they work few hours and have more leisure time. The main way that employees approach their desired number of working hours per week is through a change in employer rather than by negotiating with their current employer (Altonji & Paxson, 1992; Drago, Black, & Wooden, 2004).

At the same time that companies are requiring more time from their employees, employees are asking companies to help them reconcile their work obligations with their personal lives. The increased labor market participation of women, dual-earner households, the growth of international competition, and information technologies such as e-mail, the Web, and telecommunications that blur the boundary between work and non-work time all contribute to an unhealthy imbalance between work and personal time. While extending hours can make companies more competitive, and therefore more profitable, extending the work day has a disparate impact on women. If women are already shouldering more of the home responsibilities, they will have an even harder time balancing work and family with an increase in their work day.

Work–Life Balance at Both Ends of the Wage Hierarchy
Work–life balance is of concern to women at both ends of the wage hierarchy. On the one hand, women who work at the lower end of the employment hierarchy experience little control over their schedules, yet women at the higher end may feel compelled to work longer hours to stay on the management track.

At the low end, employees may have little choice over the hours they work, the number of weeks or months they work, or how much time they have between shifts. According to the US Bureau of Labor Standards, flexible schedules are most common among management, professional, and related occupations, but least common among construction and maintenance workers, production, transportation, and material-moving workers (2005).

Many employees at the lowest end of the payscale need to work the extra hours to make ends meet. Balance is sometimes a luxury that unskilled workers cannot afford, especially when their share of national income is falling. The wages and benefits as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) fell in many industrialized countries from 2000 to 2005. For example, in the United States the change in workers’ wages and benefits from 2000 to 2005 was −2.5%. In Germany the change was −3.1% (Porter, 2006). The decline in wages makes it necessary for employees to take on extra hours. In the past, labor unions could bargain for flexible work hours and family–work balance. But, in the United States, labor unions have lost much of their bargaining power and more jobs are non-unionized, therefore decisions about workers’ hours and pay are largely left up to the employer.

Some employers have flexible hours, but more for the convenience of the employer than the employee; workers may have to be available for various shifts and may be asked not to work if they are not needed. For example, consumer-oriented businesses such as retail and restaurants may ask employees to work extra hours when they are busy, and may reduce their hours when the customer demand is low. In the US, more than 75% of food-preparation workers, cashiers, orderlies and attendants, nursing aids, waitresses, and retail sales clerks work non-standard hours, defined as hours that deviate from a typical work day (i.e., from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with an hour for lunch) (Hamermesh, 1999). The majority of these workers attribute the reason for working non-standard hours to “the nature of the job” and “better arrangements for family or child care” (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005, p. 3). In some cases, non-standard hours may be desirable if a couple has children. In these lower-level wage categories, if one parent works standard hours and the other non-standard hours, they can more easily and more cheaply manage childcare because one of the parents will be able to take care of the children while the other is working.

At the higher end of the wage hierarchy in the US, workers make more money, but have little say over their working hours. Women at this level often feel that using flexible hours, job-sharing arrangements, or taking a break from their careers will have an impact on their careers. For example, they may not be considered for promotion or for interesting assignments or training opportunities. Even when organizations agree to flexible hours and job-sharing situations, employees worry that management does so begrudgingly. For six years, Cynthia Cunningham and Shelley Murray, two executives, successfully shared the job of Vice President of Global Markets Foreign Exchange at Fleet Bank (now part of Bank of America), yet they felt little support for their job-sharing arrangement. They commented on their challenges:
There was never a case where we couldn’t get a project done because of the job share. Our clients [the retail division] were happy with our work, and we earned millions of dollars for the bank. . . . The real challenges came almost exclusively from a lack of management support and our immediate colleagues’ suspicions about our arrangement.

(Cunningham & Murray, 2005, p. 128)

In a study of office managers’ attitudes toward employees wishing to organize alternative work arrangements, Powell and Mainiero (1999) noted that managers were more sympathetic to employees who desired special arrangements if their work was “non-critical” to the organization. Employees whose work was deemed as critical to the work unit, however, were less likely to be granted alternative work arrangements. Managers who expect their employees to work very long hours make it impossible for their employees to take advantage of company policies that offer flexibility. The emphasis with companies needs to change from hours worked to outcomes achieved.

In addition to experiencing lack of support for job-sharing arrangements and extended career breaks, most middle-management employees feel the need to stay connected to their organizations, even when they are on vacation. Management (SHRM, an association of members from over 140 countries, devoted to human resources development) polled human resource professionals to find out how their organizations handled vacation time (Victor, 2006). The HR professionals indicated that middle- and executive-level employees were expected to stay connected to the organization while on vacation via cell phones, pagers, laptops, and Blackberries more than non-management employees.

While the work culture encourages employees to work long hours, the lack of employment security in the US most likely dictates that workers cannot object too vehemently about extra hours or checking in with the office while on vacation. “Employment at will,” a common-law rule in the US, holds that an employment contract of indefinite duration can be terminated by the employer or employee at any time for any reason (except for discrimination based on sex, race, or national origin). This employment status leaves very little employment security for the average worker in the United States, the only industrialized country that maintains “employment at will.” Moreover, the categorization of employees into “exempt” (salaried workers) versus “non-exempt” (wage workers) provides little protection for exempt staff since they are exempt from (not covered by) the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938). The FLSA protects hourly workers to ensure minimum wage and overtime pay. Temporary workers, like exempt workers, are not covered by the FLSA, and do not benefit from many of the employment protections offered to full-time, permanent workers. Since the extent and influence of labor unions has waned from the early 1980s, workers cannot collectively resist having to work long hours should their employers wish it. The free-market perspective suggests that working hours should reach an equilibrium level resulting from bargaining between buyers and sellers; however, the sellers (individual workers) do not have as much market power as the buyers (large multinational companies) so that there is, in fact, no bargaining. The conditions are set by the employer.

It is true that some firms have instituted flexible work hours within the work day; these flex-time programs typically allow workers to modify their day slightly by starting an hour earlier and finishing an hour earlier, or by starting an hour later and finishing an hour later. Although firms make available these modified work schedules, many employees feel that they cannot take advantage of them. More than one in four workers are permitted to work a flexible schedule, yet only about one in ten is enrolled in a formal, employer-sponsored flex-time program (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005). In the EU, two out of three European employees report that their work-time arrangements are set by their employers with no room for flexibility (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 2008a).

The Financial Penalty for Time off Work
Women in developed countries routinely take time off work to raise children. This time off, however, exacts financial and social penalties. Women in one study suggested that there was a stigma attached to people who use work–life balance benefits, as well as financial penalties to pay (Hewlett & Luce, 2005). Hewlett and Luce (2005) ran a multi-year taskforce called “The Hidden Brain Drain: Women and Minorities as Unrealized Assets.” Their research included 2,443 women who were described as “highly qualified,” with either graduate degrees or undergraduate degrees with honors. When women did decide to take advantage of leaving an organization to gain more flexibility in their lives, they intended to do so temporarily – in the business sector, on average women leave for only 1.2 years. Taking this time off, however, exacts a financial penalty; women in the business sector lose 28% of their earning power when they return to work. Across industry sectors, women lose an average of 37% of their earning power when they take three years or more off.
Work Schedules in the US Versus Other Developed Countries
Some research shows that Americans are working longer hours than Europeans; as measured by total number of hours worked per capita, Americans work over 1,800 hours a year per capita compared with approximately 1,600 hours per capita in the UK and about 1,400 in Germany (OECD, 2004). These data also show that US workers are spending time at home to “finish or catch up” with work tasks; of 13.7 million wage and salary workers, about 10.2 million do job-related work at home on a regular basis without pay. Workers logged an average of seven unpaid hours at home (US Bureau of Labor, 2005, p. 1). A revision of the 1993 European Working Directive sets the maximum weekly working time for EU employees at 48 hours. However, an “opt-out” clause grants European Union employers an exemption from the weekly minimum if employees agree, either through collective bargaining or if it is written into the employment contract. It is possible for employees to work up to 65 hours per week. Currently, one in five employees in the United Kingdom works more than 48 hours (Boulin, Lallement, & Michon, 2006).

Governmental institutions and laws generally have effects on the degree to which people have control over their work. Most governments legislate maximum allowable work hours per week, rest breaks, and annual vacation leaves, but there are great differences among them. As Table 9.1 outlines, the United States has limited regulations in regard to working hours and annual leave as compared to the EU and Japan. The US Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not cover work breaks or meal breaks, nor does it cover salaried employees (executives, professionals, salespeople who are not on an hourly wage); about 27% of American workers are outside of the FLSA regulations, which means that they have very little power over their work schedules (Pedersini, 2008).

A cross-national comparison of European employment patterns conducted by Anxo, Boulin, and Fagan (2006) illustrates the positive effects that legislation can have over labor rates. Nordic countries have continuous labor market participation over the life course, especially at either ends of the age spectrum. Some 80% of women aged 25–54 are part of the workforce in Nordic countries. Women stay in the workforce over most of their lives in part because of strong social programs that help them with family commitments (parental leaves, childcare resources, income-compensated leaves, etc.). For example, Norway offers 42 weeks of paid leave at 100% of an individual’s salary and 52 weeks at 80% of one’s salary (Catalyst, 2007b). It is common for workers in Sweden to work some sort of flexible work arrangement. Additionally, Swedish workers are allowed a “flex bank,” a system in which employees can bank hours that they work beyond the regular work day and use later. Sweden provides 96 weeks of maternity leave, 78 of which are paid at 80% of salary (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 2008). France follows what the researchers call a “modified breadwinner model” where some women exit the labor force when they have young children, but the majority work full-time or adjust their hours for long part-time hours. In contrast to the Nordic countries, France has less social support and a higher unemployment rate, both of which limit women’s full participation in the labor force. In Spain, even fewer women are in the labor force and those who are work full-time. The low provision of childcare, especially for young children, the low provision of guaranteed leave, and limited income replacement (paid leave is 16 weeks at 100% of salary) has an impact on female participation in the labor force. In the UK, a part-time model of work is common for mothers, even as their children grow older. In the UK, it is difficult to find full-time childcare – especially for the millions of commuters into London, who must start their day very early to arrive in the city by 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. In the UK, mothers are covered by a 39-week maternity leave – six weeks of which are paid at 90% of salary and the remaining weeks at a flat rate or 90% of salary, depending on which is lower. An additional 52 weeks is offered as unpaid leave. As in many countries since World War II, the UK government also provides a tax-free “child benefit,” a monthly payment to parents to help raise their children.

Table 9.1 Mandatory Rules on Some Basic Elements of Working Time






Daily Working Time/Overtime

No specific industries, like road haulage, are subject to specific working time provisions.

Eight hours.

No specific industries, like trucking and aviation, are subject to maximum daily working time provisions for safety purposes.

Eight hours, no more than two hours of overtime.

Eight hours, no more than one hour of overtime (or three hours in special circumstances) a day and 36 hours a week.

Weekly Working Time

Maximum 48 hours on average each seven-day period including overtime.

40 hours overtime premium must be paid (at least 25% of the hourly wage) and overtime cannot exceed 10 hours a week, 45 a month and 360 a year.

40 hours, unless an overtime premium of at least 50% of the hourly wage is paid.

44 hours.

40 hours.

Daily Rest

11 hours.





Weekly Rest Period

24 uninterrupted hours and the daily 11 consecutive rest hours.

One day a week.


One day a week, preferably on Sundays.

Saturdays and Sundays are the normal days off.


If working day is longer than six hours.

If working time exceeds six hours (45-minute break) or eight hours (one-hour break).

No (some state legislation).



Annual leave

At least four weeks of paid annual leave, which may not be replaced by an allowance in lieu.

At least 10 days of paid leave, which can reach 20 based on a worker’s seniority.


30 days.


Source: European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. (2008). Wyattville Road, Loughlinstown, Dublin 18, Ireland.

The information included in the table refers exclusively to EU level rules. National legislation may introduce further rules; for instance member states provide rules on daily working time and overtime.

In comparison with European countries, the United States makes even fewer accommodations for work–life balance. For example, the US did not pass legislation for maternity leave until 1993; by contrast, Sweden passed maternity leave legislation in 1891 and parental leave for fathers in 1974; Germany passed maternity legislation in 1883; and France in 1928 (Ruhm & Teague, 1995). The Swedish government expresses its commitment to reconciling work and family by affirming that women and men ought to be able to combine meaningful work with active parenting (Kimball, 1999). In contrast with European countries, the US follows a free-market model with little government support for childcare and paid leaves. The United States is one of the few industrialized countries that does not mandate a paid maternity leave for new mothers. (Although the US does not provide federal support, some states have provided paid leaves, notably California and Washington.)

Beyond the 12 weeks of unpaid leave provided by the US Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), longer or paid leaves are up to the employer. Furthermore, companies with fewer than 50 employees are not covered by the FMLA. According to a survey by the Society for Human Resources, only 32% of US employers offered a paid family leave (Victor, 2006). To extend a maternity leave, many US employees use a combination of the Family Medical Leave provision, sick days, and their vacation allotment. The International Labour Organization has called for a minimum of 12 weeks’ maternity leave and has recommended that employers offer 14 weeks, yet out of its 182 member states, 119 meet the minimum standard, only 62 countries provide 14 weeks or more, and 31 provide less than 12 weeks of leave.

Countries that do offer maternity benefits require various lengths of service with the same employer in order to qualify and notice periods. For example, in Switzerland an employee needs to work for the same employer for three months, while Zambia and Gambia require a two-year length-of-service. In Australia, a woman must give at least 10 weeks’ notice before taking a maternity leave, while in Denmark, France, Greece, and Italy, no notice is required. These country comparisons clearly show the impact of institutional support from both governments and employers on labor-market participation and on work–life balance issues. Figures 9.1 and 9.2 provide a comparison of selected countries and their maternity and paternity leave benefits.
[Insert Figure 9.1 here]

[caption]Figure 9.1 Total and FTE Paid Leave for Fathers in Couples (source: Ray, Gornick, & Schmidt (2008)).

[Insert Figure 9.2 here]

[caption]Figure 9.2 Total and FTE Paid Leave for Mothers in Couples (source: Ray et al. (2008)).

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