The 9–5 is Biologically Sexist. Here’s How to Fix it.
Manasvi Reddy (PPS ‘24)
For generations, the standard American workday has been the infamous 9–5, built on the concept of 8 hours each of work, play, and sleep. However, this norm is entrenched in sexist ideals and fails to consider biological influences on productivity. As companies navigate how to restructure their workplaces in a post-pandemic era, a new American workday is needed- and it is far from the 9–5.
To provide greater context, the concept of a 40-hour workday was first introduced by Henry Ford of Ford Motor Company in the 1920s. By 1938, Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), normalizing eight-hour shifts to ensure fair treatment of workers. At this time, men made up the bulk of the working population.
However, in the years following its implementation, an increasing number of women joined the workforce. Eight-hour days proved to be difficult for women with additional responsibilities, particularly working mothers who struggled to balance careers with familial duties and household routines.
This struggle has flagged the 9–5 workday as the subject of ongoing controversy. A scientific consideration further exacerbates the problem, as the 9–5 is conveniently well-suited to the male biological system. Testosterone is a hormone present in both men and women that contributes to energy levels, developmental and reproductive features, and libido. Male testosterone levels peak in the morning and dip in the evening, aligning advantageously with the 9–5 schedule. This concept is an indirect explanation for researched productivity patterns Ford found in the earliest stages of developing the 9–5.
In contrast, women’s testosterone levels vary more significantly on a week-to-week basis. Their hormone cycle lasts roughly 28 days and consists of four individual phases, with testosterone reaching its highest during ovulation. As a result, female productivity is likely to fluctuate throughout the month, straining efficiency at times. This can be particularly challenging during the luteal phase, in which women commonly face fatigue.
Not only does the 9–5 workday place an unwanted burden on working mothers, but the nearly century-old career standard resists the biological reality of female productivity entirely. When forced to push through an 8-hour shift during certain phases of her cycle, lack of focus, irritability, insomnia, and other premenstrual symptoms threaten to downgrade a woman’s work performance.
Furthermore, since the 9–5 was originally implemented, gender roles have shifted. The intersection of motherhood and the working woman is more widely accepted than ever before. The types of jobs average Americans work have evolved from Ford’s assembly lines to the booming information technology industry. And, thankfully, employers are starting to take note.
For years, the picture of the standard American office has consisted of a tiny cubicle, buzzing fluorescent lights, and the sound of a dozen ringing phones. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, shined a new light on how Americans could work when forced to leave the office. Through navigating Zoom, conference calls between interruptions from young children, and boundaries between home and work, many workplaces that shifted online learned how to operate remotely in an effective manner.
Even as society adjusts to a post-COVID world, Gallup survey reports that approximately 25% of current U.S. full-time employees work from home. Employers generally report seeing lower turnover, a more diversified applicant pool, and significant cost savings after allowing employees to work remotely. Moreover, workers can report to their jobs around other obligations as well as utilize bursts of energy to boost productivity overall. The technology sector has accepted this concept more easily than others, with companies such as Twitter planning to support adaptable work environments long-term.
More than just enabling remote work, federal legislators should consider revising the FLSA to include “flexible” workplaces. Employees should be allowed to work outside the traditional business hours and locations. The option to work in differentiated intervals, perhaps in several segments throughout the day, could help individuals fit their jobs into their lives more seamlessly. Such changes may be most easily implemented in the private sector before expanding into pertinent areas of the public sector. This set-up demonstrates faith from employers and, as a result, boosts worker morale.
It’s time to accept the 9–5 as an antiquated memento from decades ago and adapt to evolving needs of the workforce. This transformation is impending; it’s simply a matter of waiting for employers to fully embrace a new norm. As we continue to increase our awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, it’s important that we also consider how we can make careers attainable for individuals in a wider range of circumstances.
Manasvi Reddy (PPS ’24) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.