The New York Times has an illuminating article today summarizing recent research on the gender effects of mandatory overwork in professional jobs. Lawyers, people in finance and other client-centered occupations are increasingly required to be available round-the-clock, with 50-60 or more hours of work per week the norm. Among other costs, the impact on wage inequality between men and women is severe. Since women are largely saddled with primary responsibility for child care, even when couples ostensibly embrace equality on a theoretical level, the workaholic jobs are allocated to men. This shows up in dramatic differences between typical male and female career paths. The article doesn’t discuss comparable issues in working class employment, but availability for last-minute changes in work schedules and similar demands are likely to impact men and women differentially as well.
What the article doesn’t point out is that the situation it describes is a classic prisoners dilemma.* Consider law firms. They compete for clients, and clients prefer attorneys who are available on call, always prepared and willing to adjust to whatever schedule the client throws at them. Assume that most lawyers want sane, predictable work hours if they are offered without a severe penalty in pay. If law firms care about the well-being of their employees but also about profits, we have all the ingredients to construct a standard PD payoff matrix:
There is a penalty to unilateral cooperation, cutting work hours back to a work-life balance level. If your firm does it and the others don’t, you lose clients to them.
There is a benefit to unilateral defection. If everyone else is cutting hours but you don’t, you scoop up the lion’s share of the clients.