Unpaid overtime is a problem that faces a growing number of workers – and it’s something that Australians in particular struggle with. However, it was only recently that I realised why the notion of unpaid overtime really bothered me, particularly when it came to industries that have a “culture” of overtime (for example, most STEM fields).
Typically, what this “culture” equates to is an entire industry working “until the job is done” – regardless of whether they are being paid or not. Whether it be fixing a virus or marking exam papers out of hours, people within these roles will stay at work until the problem is fixed. It could be that they feel pressured to stay because everyone else is doing so, or it could be because they want to create a good impression within the company.
Technically, these hours are seen as voluntary. I say “technically”, because you can usually bet that if one of these workers kicked up a stink about working unpaid overtime, they would be out on their butts come the next hiring period. At the very least, they would be viewed as not chipping in to the same extent as their overtime-working colleagues. So, overtime may not be mandatory – but it can definitely be expected of workers.
The problem I have with this expectation lies within the individual worker’s ability to then meet these expectations. If you want to take a feminist’s viewpoint on the issue, then you can consider the following example:
A young, unattached, white, straight, single male works within a STEM-style field – let’s call him Alex. Alex has been at the company for a few years, and is slowly working his way up the corporate ladder. He occasionally does overtime, and says that he doesn’t mind because it’s “his choice”, and it’s “expected of him” (which, by the way, are two separate things. If Alex had a “choice” to go home at 5:00pm without any consequences, you can bet he’d do so). Alex has no one else dependent upon him, and so has the luxury of working overtime and picking up take out on his way back to his apartment.
Alex, although he may not realise it (and would probably disagree with you if you pointed it out to him) is drenched in privilege. He’s white (tick), straight (tick), young (tick), man (tick, tick, tick) in a traditionally male-dominated field. He puts in the extra hours and surprise, surprise, sooner or later he’s given a promotion.
Now, our next example: a single woman who has three children, working within the same STEM-style field – let’s call her Juliet. She’s been at the company for the same amount of time , except, of course, she has three children (cross), and is single (not necessarily a cross, but definitely difficult). Now, it’s 5:00pm, and Alex and Juliet are both asked to work overtime. Alex turn around and say “sure thing, boss!” – because he has no one dependent on him. Juliet, on the other hand, needs to be home to cook dinner and help her kids with their homework. so, what can she do? Well, she can either go home (which then creates the impression that she’s not working hard enough), or she stays (which then potentially creates the impression that she’s a “bad mother”). Either way, she loses out. Juliet’s already working in a traditionally male-dominated field – so how to you think it looks when she doesn’t put in the extra hours?
Do you see how this “culture of overtime” really only benefits a select few – and those select few are those with the fewest number of “consequences” for not staying behind? There are people who we work side by side with – mothers, carers, people of different abilities – who cannot work overtime. They simply can’t afford to do so. And the rest of us who do work overtime for free? We simply reinforce this culture. By not standing up to it, we say that it’s okay to judge us on the amount of “extra effort” we put in outside of work hours – when it’s not.