NATSEM Seminar Series

Addressing the hour-glass ceiling: How health and time lock gender inequality into the labour market

Tue 12 March 2019Professor Lyndall Strazdins / 11:00am-12:00pmFishbowl, Building 24, University of Canberra


The hour-glass ceiling refers to a ceiling on pay and advancement which arises when good jobs become predicated on long hours. This ceiling is time- not merit-based; it pushes otherwise qualified and capable women out of well-paid and influential jobs into short hour and less privileged jobs, compromising their income and earnings, creating a two-tiered, gender-polarised labour market that undermines equality. This seminar discusses recent research on how time and health are related. It then applies these time-health relationships to an analysis of gender inequality in employment.

We estimate workhour–health thresholds, testing if they vary for men and women due to gendered workloads and constraints on and off the job. We present the results for mental health and then new work in progress estimating work hour tipping points for physical vitality, body pain and BMI. We use data from a nationally representative sample of Australian adults (24-65 years), in the Household Income Labour Dynamics of Australia Survey (N = 3828 men; 4062 women), the mental health and vitality analyses uses a longitudinal, simultaneous equation approach, OLS models estimate pain and BMI relationships with work time.

We find an average threshold of 39 hours per week beyond which mental health declines. Separate curves estimate thresholds for men and women, by high or low non-work (care and domestic) time constraints, using stratified and pooled samples. We find gendered work hour-health limits (43.5 for men, 38 for women) which widen further once differences in resources and time off the job are considered. These gender-health trade-offs deliver men a 13 hour advantage every week in how long they can work before they compromise their mental health relative to women. Only when time is ‘unencumbered’ do such gender gaps narrow.

Our analyses of physical vitality closely mirrors the findings for mental health. The average threshold is 39 hours, but clear gender gaps are apparent (45 hours for men and 34.5 hours for women) which parallel the tipping point differences, linked to time spent in care and unpaid work. For body pain we find that it is the hours worked in the past 12 months that are most predictive of pain patterns, an average tipping point of 44 hours (men 47 hours and women 42). For BMI the work hour relationship is linear. Once work hours go above 35 the increase in BMI is observed (using a lag of hours worked in the past 12 months). There appears to be no gender difference in the BMI work-hour relationship however.

Time imposes a limit on earnings, wealth, health and gender equality that has not been fully understood or factored in. Time is limited (everyone has only 24 hours each day) and fundamental to earning capacity: people exchange time to earn wages. It is how much time people must work to earn wages, and how this affects time outside the market that sets a key parameter to the health, wealth and inequality system. We show how women choose between equality or health (considering multiple aspects of health) if they work the same (long) hours expected of men. The health–time limit is therefore a disincentive for change; it locks in the gender polarisation of work time and the earnings and opportunity gap it underpins. To achieve equal pay, policy action will need to address unequal time.



I am a Clinical Psychologist and Professor (PhD Psychology, M Clinical Psych) and the Director of the Research School of Population Health, the Australian National University. I am also an ARC awarded Future Fellow investigating time as a resource for health. I lead the work and family component of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, a study of 10,000 families, and serve as a scientific consultant to local and Federal Government.

My research focuses on contemporary predicaments of work and care and their health and equity consequences, viewing health as inter-linked within families. More recently I have been developing an analysis of time as a social determinant of health, seeking to understand the significance of time as a resource, like money, which structures power relations, gender and social inequality and peoples’ capacity to be healthy.

This event is free to attend. You are welcome to forward this invitation to any interested guests.

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