September 25, 2008

Study Highlights Gender Inequality in the Workplace

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Overworked husbands push their wives out of the workforce, according to a study by Youngjoo Cha, a graduate student in Cornell’s department of sociology.
The study, presented Aug. 1st during a meeting of the American Sociological Association in Boston, was based on data from the 1996 Survey of Income and Program Participation, a longitudinal study managed by the U.S. Census Bureau. It was funded by a research grant from the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center.
The data indicated that women whose husbands worked over 60 hours per week were 44 percent more likely to quit their jobs than women whose husbands worked regular hours. Furthermore, Cha found that the subgroup of professional women with overworked husbands were 52 percent more likely to quit their jobs than similarly-situated women with husbands who worked normal hours.
The study also found that the number of workers who are classified as overworked has risen by more than 3 percent since 1983 and that 30 percent of professional husbands in two-income households work more than 50 hours per week, whereas only 12 percent of their professional wives do the same.
Cha noted that the implications of the study were clear and important.
“I found that there is a kind of neotraditional trend going on, in which overworked husbands drive their wives from the workforce, thereby causing a return to the traditional homemaker-breadwinner family structure,” she said.
She explained that this trend is due to the American norm of working extremely long hours.
“The problems identified in the study are caused by the workplace norm of long hours,” she said, “which forces husbands and wives to choose between work and family, with the wife often taking on most of the home-related duties.”
The study was well received by many researchers in related fields.
Dr. Francine Moccio, director of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations’ Institute for Women and Work, said that the study was important because it established an empirical relationship between overwork and the perpetuation of gender inequality.
Moccio also noted that the trend identified by the study has negative implications for men as well as for women.
“The study established that men who wish to engage in family responsibilities on an equal level with women may face a great degree of workplace discrimination,” she said, since decreases in the number of women in the workforce mean that men can be expected to work still longer hours.
Moccio added that the study supports the common conclusion that the average American worker is highly overworked compared to the vast majority of his or her foreign counterparts.
She also suggested some ways in which the trend identified by the study could be combated without huge social reform.
“We need to make sure that workers can make use of the ‘work / life’ policies put in place at most organizations without fear of retaliation,” she said. “We need to create national laws protecting maternal and paternal leave and other forms of family absence, something that some European countries have already done.”
Prof. Pamela Tolbert, chair of the Department of Organizational Behavior, agreed that the study has important ramifications for American society.
“The situation is obviously a quandary … particularly in this day and age, when many people feel that their jobs are precarious.”
She noted, however, that many younger people are taking action against the sort of trends examined in the survey.
“Young people are really starting to consider these issues,” she said, “they’re asking potential employers about what percentage of their workers take advantage of work-family policies, they’re favoring family-friendly organizations,” she said.
Current Cornellians of both genders are certainly aware of the problems associated with trying to advance professionally while raising a family.
Olivier St.-Louis ’11, said, “As someone who is considering becoming a medical professional, I’m aware of the strain that overwork can put on a family situation. However, I also know that husbands and wives find ways to balance their careers and I’m hopeful that this will still be possible in the future.”
Alexandra Grossbaum ’11, vice president of the ILR student government association, said that the situation is particularly relevant to women.
“I think that it’s something that women especially have to think about these days,” she said, “because as much as you want to pursue a career, if you also want to raise a family, you’re definitely going to have to choose between the two to a certain extent.”