Before the pandemic, a handful of companies were experimenting with the four-day workweek. But now the practice is going mainstream, with companies like crowd-sourcing platform Kickstarter and online clothing marketplace ThredUp compressing their working weeks.
Some countries are giving it a go. During the pandemic, the government of Japan encouraged employers to adopt a four-day schedule, and in Iceland, it’s the norm, where 86% of workers now work or have the option to work a four-day week. Even city employees in Morgantown, WV, are working a shorter week.
Reception has been largely favorable. Workers report improved work-life balance, less stress and burnout, and higher productivity. But evidence has pointed to one other surprising outcome: The four-day workweek may also improve gender parity.
In 2022, 33 companies across six countries, including the US and Canada, participated in a six-month trial of the four-day work week. According to a survey by 4 Day Week Global, the nonprofit organization that facilitated the trial, workers reported experiencing less burnout, higher life and job satisfaction, improved work-life balance, and better mental and emotional well-being. Men with a four-day week reported spending 22% more time on childcare and 23% more time on housework, while women’s time on these responsibilities decreased. It raises the question: If the four-day work week can help women balance their professional and personal lives, could instituting a four-day week be a feminist act?
Four-day weeks are already the norm in some industries: Take hospital doctors and nurses, who often work a full-time schedule across three or four days, or some manufacturing workers who tend to work extended shifts. But in white collar offices, where working 9-to-5 Monday through Friday has been the rule for 85 years, the four-day workweek lands like a revolution. “Of all the workplace initiatives I’ve instituted in the last 10 years, this has been the most impactful,” says Dawoon Kang, co-founder of dating app Coffee Meets Bagel, which retooled to a four-day workweek last year. People adapted very quickly, she says. Productivity and morale improved.
Quincy Yang, Coffee Meets Bagel’s CFO, called the new schedule “transformational.” Yang now schedules the week around his wife, who works a traditional 9-to-5 in-office job, and his two young children. The extra day lets him attend school field trips with his six-year-old or stay up late nights with his youngest, who is less than a year old. “It’s a lot easier for me to stay up overnight because I know I’m not going to have to wake up really early on Friday,” Yang says. “It gives me a lot more energy to help my partner and my children.”
“A four-day workweek appears to be gender-neutral in its design, but there will be gendered effects, with women benefiting disproportionately because they do more caregiving work,” says Yana Rodgers, director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University.
Relentless competition between responsibilities at work and home can stunt women’s careers, their pay, mental well-being, and physical health. The fact that women take on the bulk of caregiving and housekeeping duties is cited as a major contributor to the gender pay gap, the motherhood penalty, and burnout among working women.
A four-day week makes it easier for both women and men to balance the scales between caregiving and careers. Workers who spoke to Quartz for this story say that the schedule has been good for their mental health, they feel less stressed, they spend more time with their families, and when they’re lucky, they find the time for naps.
Women are also more likely to be caregivers for other family members who need the extra help. Ellen Harrison, freshly retired from the Virginia Department of Education, described the freedom of not having to drag her laptop with her every time she went to take care of her parents during the week.
The spirit of the four-day workweek challenges the validity of the institutional office work schedule, which can be onerous on those also bearing the bulk of domestic duties. “We’re all working too much,” says Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in economic studies at The Brookings Institution. “It’s not good for your health, [and] it’s not healthy for your family.” But it’s hard to buck the trend, she says.
In the last year, almost a third of women have considered reducing their hours, taking a less demanding job, or leaving the workforce. But how are they expected to choose between time and money? Without a job, many can’t afford childcare, elder care, or their own living expenses. Quitting their job also sacrifices career progression and therefore long-term pay increases. The four-day workweek—especially one that doesn’t reduce full-time pay—offers an option to balance both.
Instead of having a strictly curtailed week, the four-day week gives much-needed slack in the schedule. Addie Caulk Derr, the VP of marketing at software company Keen Decision Systems, has worked four days a week since April 2022. She works a typical 8- to 10-hour day Monday through Thursday, and takes Fridays off. Sometimes. “If you’re working on a Friday, it’s at your own discretion. It’s not because anybody has told you to do it,” she says.
But even a slight relief of pressure helped balance her work and home life, and now Caulk Derr enjoys more time with her daughter. “I can take her to school and pick her up from school. I can take her to the park when there aren’t a million kids there. I can plan out my days so that I’m there for the important stuff.”
Feminism’s contemporary reputation is clouded by its historical tendency to exclude the people who need its progress most, like poor and low-income women, single mothers, women of color, women who are immigrants, and women with disabilities. Feminism is not beholden to this pattern, of course, and intersectionalists are right to single out the shortcomings of the four-day week.
For some already working long shifts four days per week, the pay isn’t enough to cover the basics. Finding childcare for a 12-hour shift isn’t easy. For physically taxing jobs, eight hours at a time is the reasonable limit.
CUNY law professor Shirley Lung notes in a 2010 paper that the women who benefit most richly from compressed workweeks are salaried women. “For employees working upwards of 10 to 12 hours per day, six days per week, the day is too short for additional hours to be compressed into it,” Lung writes. “Shortened work hours, if accompanied by income reduction, would hurt poor and low-income women who are not in a position to forego earning income in exchange for time at home.”
And perhaps other institutional supports would better serve women balancing careers and families. Sawhill at Brookings says that though the four-day week would benefit women, “if we’re worried about the work-family balance, the top of my list would be subsidized childcare.” Camryn Banks, a former research associate at the Aspen Institute, recommends a schedule designed around worker needs, not an arbitrary number of hours, and reducing the number of hours required to qualify for full-time employment (and thus benefits and overtime pay) from 40 hours to 32.
Sawhill rejects the notion that a reduction in hours necessitates a reduction in compensation. “When Henry Ford reduced the workweek from six to five days in 1926, he did not cut wages,” Sawhill wrote in 2016. “He assumed that both productivity and consumption would rise, and his example encouraged other employers to follow suit.”
The four-day week hasn’t proven itself to be a perfect solution to gender parity at work and home, but does appear to tip the scales for many women who need relief from overwhelming responsibilities. Kang at Coffee Meets Bagel doesn’t always get to take Fridays off, but the option makes a difference. “As a parent, it’s hard to get me time,” she says. “Even if it’s only two hours, knowing that I have that is good for my mental health.”