‘Greedy Work’ Helps Preserve Gender Income Gap

According to Harvard University Prof. Claudia Goldin, who won the 2023 Nobel Prize in economics, “greedy work” is to blame for the continuing inequalities between men and women in the labor market.

To put it simply, “greedy work” — a term that Goldin coined — means a high-paying job that requires long, irregular hours.

Goldin detailed her studies in her 2021 book, showing us that women’s participation in the labor force forms a U-shaped pattern when illustrated in a historical graph.

In past times when agriculture was predominant, women participated in the labor force at a high rate. However, with the progress of industrialization, Goldin writes, many people began working at factories and other locations, a situation that made it difficult for women to work from home. As it became hard for married women to have both a career and a family, women’s participation in the labor force shrank. Technology later advanced, the service sector grew and women’s education levels increased, all of which contributed to a spike in demand for female employees. This led to an upturn in women’s participation.

However, social stigma, legislation and institutional barriers still thwarted women’s participation in the labor force. Using generation-by-generation data, Goldin also illustrates how marriage was a factor that greatly affected women’s working as well.

There was a massive influx of women into the U.S. labor market in the latter half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, women’s average net employment rate hardly went up at all, according to the Harvard professor. This was because women made a long-term exit from the labor market upon marriage. Soon after, Goldin adds that the spread of contraceptive pills that came onto the market in the late 1960s brought women new opportunities for better career planning, allowing them to choose the best time for marriage and childbirth.

Even in the 21st century, inequality still exists between men and women. The social belief that “women should be responsible for child-rearing and household work” is particularly to blame for that. Even today, women tend to choose jobs that enable them to prioritize child-rearing — jobs that require less after-hours work and provide flexible work schedules.

In fact, Goldin’s studies reveal that the jobs that cause earning inequalities at work are those that let people work longer hours to earn much more on an hourly basis. Likewise, the gender gap widens in a workplace environment that requires employees to work together at a certain place for fixed hours, keeping women from flexibly changing their work schedules.

Amid what she calls “greedy work” and the social norm that women should devote time to the family, men look down on homemaking and instead engage in long hours of work. Women, for their part, avoid “greedy jobs.” So, gender inequalities at work do not go away.

Some people may see no problem with “greedy work” as long as it raises productivity. But society will suffer major losses if talented, qualified women decline certain jobs because of the long hours involved.

In Japan, work style reform has been carried out amid concerns over the harmful effects of long work hours on employees’ mental and physical health.

A revision in the Labor Standards Law with a penalty-carrying clause to cap overtime at 45 hours a month and 360 hours a year, in principle, became effective for large companies from April 2019 and for small and midsize enterprises from April 2020.

The now-statutory limitation on overtime can be raised if there are temporary, special reasons in a workplace, and if labor and management consent. Even in such a case, however, the law stipulates that after-hours work should not exceed 720 hours a year. This is inseparably coupled with mandatory rules limiting overtime to less than 100 hours every month, including work on days designated for rest. Also, the average over different monthly periods — from two to six months — must not exceed 80 hours. Overtime can also exceed the standard monthly cap of 45 hours up to six times a year.

However, companies in the construction sector, those employing motor vehicle drivers and medical doctors have been given a five-year grace period for abiding by the new overtime regulations. Overtime limitation is thus to be tightened for them as well in April this year.

Right person for the right job

As for physicians, a separate regulatory system for their overtime will be introduced, taking the special nature of their profession into consideration. If they need to work long hours for temporary clinical activities, an annual cap of 960 hours will be applied. The upper limit can be extended to 1,860 hours a year if they are dispatched to local areas to ensure the stability of local health care services or they need to intensively conduct clinical research and acquire advanced skills over a certain period of time.

The tightening of the overtime limits is expected to reduce total working hours, heightening the shortage of human resources and eventually having a great impact on operations in sectors where after-hours work has been the norm.

On the other hand, decreased overtime may encourage the entry into those sectors of women who are qualified but have so far avoided them due to the long working hours. If that happens, the shortage of workers may be resolved.

It is well known that women have a tendency to avoid surgery when choosing their specialty as a physician, as surgery tends to require long working hours. Instead, they lean toward specialties that are less overtime-intensive, such as dermatology and ophthalmology.

That has been the case in the United States as well. To rectify the situation, regulations called the “common duty hours limits” were implemented in the United States in 2003, for medical residents in every specialty. The cap on average working hours is set at 80 hours a week with one mandatory day off per week, and a maximum limit is set for each on-call shift and a certain minimum amount of time off between shifts.

Melanie Wasserman, an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, analyzed in a 2022 study how the 2003 regulation affected residents’ choice of specialties.

She found an increase in the percentage of female residents who chose specialties for which residents’ work hours had been sharply reduced, while male residents’ specialty choices were little changed. Her research findings also showed that the average working hours per person were longer for men, a phenomenon reflecting the fact that men accounted for the majority in time-intensive specialties such as surgery.

According to Wasserman’s analysis, the shift in women’s specialties is the result of supply-side effects, demonstrating a change in female physicians’ preferences rather than an increase in demand for those specialties. She estimated that the reallocation of women among medical specialties, due to the reduced hours, helped narrow the physician gender pay gap by 11%.

The cap on physicians’ working hours is likely to make scheduling for hospital staff increasingly complicated. However, on the positive side, the tightened regulations mean that hospitals will be in a better position to choose more talented, qualified physicians now that they can hire female physicians in specialties for which they previously had no choice but to recruit only male doctors.

Male physicians, too, feel they can work shorter, more regular hours than before, as it has obviously become easier to balance work and family life. They should be less likely to damage their health by working long hours.

As mentioned earlier, Japan has implemented work style reform, but it is still insufficient, as the reform’s purpose was limited to resolving the issue of health problems caused by long hours of work. Restricting “greedy work,” or a male-friendly working environment, can greatly benefit society, as women feel encouraged to participate in various jobs.

There still are women who have to select a disappointing career path despite their talent because they are unable to work long hours. The just-mentioned deregulation can create opportunities for such women to land jobs in which they can fully display their talent. When this happens, the quality of the labor force will certainly improve overall.

Stricter limits on overtime are certainly a blow to businesses, as they will face increasingly acute manpower shortages in the near term. In the long term, however, they are being blessed with newfound opportunities to employ talented workers they couldn’t hire before.

Fumio Ohtake

Ohtake is a specially appointed professor at the Center for Infectious Disease Education and Research (CiDER) at Osaka University, where he served as an executive vice president in 2013-15. He was president of the Japanese Economic Association in 2020-21.

The original Japanese article appeared in the Feb. 18 issue of The Yomiuri Shimbun.