Employment

Why the four-day working week is a feminist issue – and what we need to do about it

Work doesn’t really end when you clock off. Particularly, says author Ruby Russell, if you’re a woman in an opposite-sex relationship

The four-day week is a feminist issue. Credit: canva

Work doesn’t really end when you clock off. Particularly, says feminist author Ruby Russell, if you’re a woman in an opposite-sex relationship.

“A lot of women in my generation, we came of age with feminist politics, feminist assumptions,” she told the Big Issue.

“We thought: ‘When we settle down with our nice, woke, millennial men, they will totally do half [of the domestic work].’ And I think that they thought that they were totally going to do half. But it’s not the reality of what happens. Surprise! You suddenly realise – this is not equal at all.”

In the UK, 63% of women in mixed-sex households believe that they do more than their fair share of the housework, compared to around a fifth of men.

The divide is even starker in families with children. 91% of mothers spend at least an hour per day on housework, the European Institute for Gender reports, compared with 30% of fathers.

The phenomenon whereby women are in paid employment but still shoulder most domestic duties is known as the “double shift“.

It’s this exhausting reality that Russell tackles in her new book Doing it All.

“We’re supposed to have it all these days… but doing it all is exhausting. And being it all can leave you wondering if you’re anyone at all,” she tells her readers.

“The life of a ‘working mother’ isn’t just a double shift of performing two roles at once. It’s a kind of split-personality madness.”

Working mums must be both “homemakers and breadwinners”, she writes. “Selfless and strident. Gentle and assertive. Carers and careerists. Connected and independent. Rational and emotional. Keep house and make successes of ourselves in the real world.”

In 1931, around a third of women aged between 16 and 64 were in paid employment. Work was typically a man’s world, while women were typically responsible for domestic upkeep and caring for the family.

In 2024, these ideas seem antiquated. The female employment rate is 72.1%, around 7% shy of the male equivalent.

It is, Russell says, obviously a good thing that women aren’t excluded from paid employment. But caring and domestic work – the “nourishing and regenerative work that underpins society” – still needs to get done. And women, overwhelmingly, are still doing it.

It’s particularly pronounced in families with children, she adds.

“There’s historically some idea that [mothering] is not work, it’s just something we passively embody,” Russell says. “But there’s no acknowledgement of just how much time, how many hours, it takes to do this work.”

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Why is the four-day working week a feminist issue?

Reducing the working week will help protect women from burnout – and encourage men to take their caring responsibilities more seriously, Russell urges.

The 40-hour working week, which became widespread in the 20th century, can’t exist without millions of hours of unseen, domestic labour.

“It’s built around the assumption that the male worker will have a female partner at home to take care of him,” she told the Big Issue. “That simply isn’t the case… it’s built for a worker who doesn’t exist anymore.”

“At the end of the 40 hour week you were supposed to come home and have some nice lady to rub your feet, cook your dinner and kiss you better. But she’s working now too – and she’s knackered! Or she’s not there because she’s on a night shift. Or if you’re a single parent, there’s no second parent there at all.”

The four-day working week is growing in popularity. Some 12% of UK businesses plan to adopt a the model in 2024, research released in February revealed – totalling 660,000 firms, and potentially millions of jobs.

“It can create more space for care… for men to take their caring responsibilities seriously, and for women to suffer from less burnout,” Russel says.

Reducing the working week won’t do everything. More radical solutions include wages for housework, an idea first popularised in the 1970s calling for women to receive a wage for the “reproductive working class.” But remodelling the 40-hour working week is a good start.

“We need to redesign work, and we need to frame it as a feminist issue,” Russell said. “It’s an urgent one.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? Get in touch and tell us moreBig Issue exists to give homeless and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy of the magazine or get the app from the App Store or Google Play.

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