With Prof. Jennifer Hunt, Labour Economist

Posted on Wednesday, May 5, 2010

4216-EN-HUNTFrom compressed workweeks to gender discrepancies on the job

By Allison Flynn

As this Special Issue of The McGill Reporter delves into the many aspects of our working lives, who better to chat with about why we work the way we do than labour economist, Jennifer Hunt? She has done research in the areas of employment and unemployment policy, immigration, wage inequality, transition economics, crime and corruption.

How did you get started in labour economics?

I went to the U.S. for my undergraduate degree and I did electrical engineering. But I started taking some economics courses and decided to apply to a PhD program in economics. I did my PhD in economics at Harvard. I came to McGill in 2004.

Have you always focused on labour issues?

Yes. It all started with my thesis on labour. Though I did spend a few yeas working on bribery, which is completely unrelated to labour issues, really. But most of my work has been on labour issues.

How did “work” – our standard workweek and the “9-5” day – get to be set up this way?

Well actually, nowadays there’s quite a divergence – even amongst richer countries – in how it is set up. One shouldn’t think of it as being standard. In the U.S., for example, people work way more hours than they do in Europe. So if you considered Europe, the U.S., maybe Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the U.S. works the most hours and the lowest would be probably Germany, France or Italy. In the 1960s, all of these countries would have actually worked around the same hours, but in Europe the numbers for the hours worked have been cut a lot.

Why is that?

The main reason for the differences [in time worked] is vacation time. In the U.S., the majority would have two weeks [off] plus the public holidays.

In Germany the standard is six weeks vacation, plus the standard holidays. The hours per week are shorter as well. The standard workweek (beyond which you have to pay overtime) would be about 37 or 38 hours a week on average. Some have 35-hour workweeks.

What is the reason for this huge difference?

Most of the reductions in Germany were bargained by the unions. It could be that there’s some reason that the unions are able to bargain that way there and not in North America. Actually, I have a paper on this and we haven’t found any particular reason except that unions are much stronger in countries with shorter hours. So, of course, in the U.S., there are hardly any unions at all. In Canada, there’s a real variation. Quebec has the most unions and then there’s [the least unionized] Alberta.

I wonder what Americans think of this.

I often marvel. It’s probably good for their mental health – they have no idea that other people have way more vacation time than they do.

The discrepancy isn’t small…

It’s huge. And if you ask people in the U.S. if they want to work more or less, not that many people say they want to work less. It might be like [when] under communism, the happier people were the ones who didn’t know how it was in the West. The unhappy ones were in East Germany, for example, because they could get West German TV sets. They knew what they were missing. So, perhaps if people in the U.S. knew what they were missing…

This isn’t about cultural differences?

People say it’s about cultural differences, but in the ’60s Germans were known as the hard workers. In fact, even now we still have this idea of Germans working hard. So, if culture is to explain it, there’s been a change in culture. And we don’t usually think of culture changing between the ’60s and now.

Are wages, say in Germany, comparable?

They seem to have cut the hours without reducing their pay, which seems surprising – especially to economists.

Because of technology, people can work from home if they want to. Is the “9-5” still applicable?

I’m not sure that we’re yet seeing a big revolution due to people working entirely at home. But perhaps [we’re] extending the hours by adding on time at home. I think it’s getting easier to bring work home.

So people aren’t one day going to be untethered from their desks

Amongst professors, it happens. But I think amongst other people, it’s slightly less the case. There are changes, though I don’t quite see yet the revolution that we’ve been hearing about. Speaking partly from personal experience, there are some people who actually like to go to work because there are other people there and sometimes you want to leave your home problems at home and get away somewhere else.

How about for commuters?

It depends where you’re living. If you’re in a huge city and you have an hour’s commute or something, that’s different. For example, I went to a conference in October at the University of Connecticut Law School where the debate was about considering compressing the workweek into four days. Some city governments had done this and claimed to save money. The main reason the workers were interested in this was to miss that one day’s commute. In places where that commute is really long, that can be appealing. But it would seem to me that there are a whole lot of other reasons why it would be bad to compress the same hours into four days.

How did we come up with the five-day workweek?

The expert on the development of work-hours is [economic historian] Michael Huberman from the Université de Montréal. It was originally bargained for by the unions, which have always tried to bargain for fewer working hours. In Germany during the ’60s, people still worked on Saturdays. In the ’60s, they reduced [the work-week] from six to five days. This had already happened in North America. It’s always been traditional not to work on Sundays, with some exceptions, but it used to be more common to work six days. In the U.S., I think that happened back in the ’40s and that was the last step toward reduced hours there. There hasn’t been a change to work hours since.

Your work about female engineers recently made a big splash in Time magazine.

Yes, it did. The question was: why do women seem to drop out of engineering more than men? The existing literature had just compared men and women in engineering and saw that women left more. There were some papers that showed women saying it was hard to combine these jobs with family, and they also mentioned that the atmosphere was very macho and somewhat hostile to women. My immediate thought was that that’s got to be true in many occupations that very educated women hold, not just in science and engineering. So, I wanted to see if it was the case.

And was it?

The gap in the exit rates [in the U.S.] of men and women in engineering is bigger than in other jobs done by university-educated women [in general].

The next step after seeing these excess exits of women was to see if the reason they gave for leaving were family-related. They weren’t. So that was the first result that knocked down the results of the previous literature.

The reason that explained a lot of the difference between engineering and the other fields was pay and promotion concerns or opportunities. So women don’t feel, compared to other fields, that they’re getting ahead in engineering.

I said, well, I wonder if engineering is actually different from other very male-dominated fields. Now it turns out that actually most of the most male-dominated fields are in engineering, but nevertheless there’s a big variety in the share of men in a field, and as it turns out that the more men there are in a field, the more excess female exits there are from that field. So, women seem to disproportionately leave male-dominated fields. And in fact, when you take that into account, engineering is just where you’d expect it to be. It is the most male but it’s completely in line with the general effect of maleness of a field on excess exits of women … In the end I couldn’t explain it. A residual explanation is still this hostile macho culture idea. But this is just an assumption because I can’t measure that directly. So I’d like to look into this more.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on an U.S. immigration project. The question is whether native-born children of less-educated parents end up doing worse in the labour market due to immigration.

What was your first job?

My first job ever was actually doing playground duty for third-graders at my school when I was 16. But my most fun job was when I was 17; I became a ski instructor in Switzerland. Although it turned out that it paid worse though. But you do get to ski for free. With 6-year-olds.

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