The Four-Day Workweek: A Potential Path to Gender Parity in Iceland and Beyond

In recent years, the concept of a four-day workweek has gained traction as a means to improve work-life balance and boost productivity. Now, the practice is increasingly going mainstream, with companies like Kickstarter and ThredUp implementing compressed working weeks. Some countries, including Japan and Iceland, have also embraced the idea, with Iceland leading the way, where 86% of workers now enjoy or have the option of working a four-day week. The impact of this shift is proving to be significant, not only for individual well-being but also for gender parity.

During a six-month trial of the four-day workweek involving 33 companies across six countries, workers reported less burnout, higher job satisfaction, improved work-life balance, and enhanced mental and emotional well-being, according to a survey conducted by 4 Day Week Global, a nonprofit organization facilitating the trial. Interestingly, men with a four-day week reported spending more time on childcare and housework, while women’s time on these responsibilities decreased. This raises the question of whether implementing a four-day workweek could be considered a feminist act by helping women better balance their professional and personal lives.

While industries like healthcare and manufacturing already embrace shorter workweeks, white-collar offices, where the traditional 9-to-5 schedule has prevailed for decades, are experiencing a transformative shift. Dawoon Kang, co-founder of dating app Coffee Meets Bagel, described the implementation of a four-day workweek as the most impactful workplace initiative in the last decade. Productivity and morale have improved significantly, with employees adapting quickly to the new schedule.

The benefits of a four-day workweek for women extend beyond work-life balance. The relentless competition between work and home responsibilities often hampers women’s careers, pay, mental well-being, and physical health. The gender pay gap, the motherhood penalty, and burnout among working women are often attributed to the unequal distribution of caregiving and housekeeping duties. A shorter workweek provides an opportunity for both women and men to find a better balance between caregiving and their careers. Workers report improved mental health, reduced stress, increased quality time with their families, and, when fortunate, the ability to take naps.

Moreover, women often shoulder additional caregiving responsibilities for family members in need. The flexibility of a four-day workweek allows them to better support their loved ones. Ellen Harrison, who recently retired from the Virginia Department of Education, highlighted the freedom of not having to carry her laptop while taking care of her parents during the week.

By challenging the conventional office work schedule, which can be burdensome for those juggling domestic duties, the four-day workweek has the potential to address the issue of overwork. “We’re all working too much,” says Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. Breaking away from this trend can lead to improved health and family dynamics. However, it is important to acknowledge that the four-day workweek may not benefit all women equally. Those already working long shifts may struggle to cover basic expenses, find suitable childcare for extended periods, or cope with physically demanding jobs.

To achieve true gender parity, alternative solutions such as subsidized childcare or redesigned schedules tailored to worker needs should also be considered. Shirley Lung, a law professor at CUNY, warns that income reduction accompanying shortened work hours may disproportionately affect poor and low-income women who cannot afford to sacrifice income for additional time at home. Furthermore, reducing the threshold for full-time employment from 40 to 32 hours could also be an effective way to support work-family balance.

While the four-day workweek may not be a perfect solution, it offers a glimmer of hope for women seeking relief from overwhelming responsibilities. As Coffee Meets Bagel’s Dawoon Kang notes, even a few hours of “me time” can have a positive impact on mental health. By creating space for personal well-being and family engagement, the four-day workweek presents an opportunity to reshape gender dynamics in the workplace and beyond. As the movement gains momentum, it is crucial to ensure that its benefits reach all women, including those facing intersecting challenges of poverty, race, immigration, disability, and single motherhood.

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