Contrary to feminist claims, the sexes on average do equal amounts of work during their lifetimesby Catherine Hakim / August 1, 2007 / Leave a comment
Do women put in more work hours than men? It is one of the most commonplace arguments, conducted in kitchens and sitting rooms throughout the land. Until now there have been two answers—men did more paid work and women more unpaid work—and because the latter was unquantified, there was no way of comparing the two workloads.
The lack of hard data has not stopped many people from stressing the “double shift” that many women do: full-time or part-time paid work followed by countless hours of unpaid work in households (childcare, domestic work, family work) as well as countless hours of voluntary work in local communities which are essential for maintaining the social fabric. Sociologists have turned to qualitative research and case studies to prove that it is women who work the longest hours—due to those invisible, uncounted hours of unpaid work in the home that prop up the formal market economy.
Two studies, in particular, have attained almost iconic status. In Britain, Ann Oakley’s Housewife catalogues the unremitting 18-hour work days of mothers with no jobs but with children under five at home. In the US, Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift details the domestic work and childcare done by women after they return home from their full-time day jobs. The trouble is, these case studies invariably focus on women with babies or young children at home—a relatively temporary phase within the life cycle. Critics have argued that such studies cannot be representative of women generally.
But a completely new kind of government survey is now shedding light on this debate. Time budget studies, or time use surveys, measure all forms of work and activity, not just employment. These surveys ask people to record their activities every hour (or every 15 minutes) of the day, for one week or one day (chosen at random), using a time diary. The earliest and best-known time use surveys are those carried out by the BBC, to monitor how much time people spend watching television, at which times of the day. Eurostat (the statistical office of the EU) has now developed a new programme of satellite accounts on productive work in households which are based on a new series of time use surveys. The first round of the “harmonised European time use surveys” was carried out in 2000 in over 20 countries. Results from the British 2000 survey are accessible online (www.statistics.gov.uk/timeuse) and some initial reports have been published.
The long-term trend is towards convergence in the hours of paid and unpaid work done by men and women. But the key finding is that when all forms of work are added together, men and women do exactly the same total hours of productive activity: just under eight hours a day. As expected, men do substantially more hours of paid work, while women’s time is divided fairly evenly between paid and unpaid work. Men and women do roughly equal amounts of voluntary work—contrary to the popular myth that women do vastly more than men.
True, these results are averages across the entire life cycle. So mothers with young children at home may temporarily be working longer hours in total than men at the same stage in life. But older women, and those without children, tend to work fewer hours in total than men. This result for Britain is duplicated in Sweden and other European countries, and is clearly the general pattern in modern societies.
Results from the time use surveys are also helping to document the economic value of unpaid household work. Findings here are more slippery, as they depend so much on how unpaid work is valued. When a highly paid lawyer stays at home to care full time for a new baby, should her time be valued at the commercial rate for a babysitter or a nanny, or at the commercial rate for her normal full-time job? So far, for developed countries, the total value of household work has been estimated as adding up to 50 per cent of GDP, although other estimates cluster in the 20 per cent to 40 per cent range. On this basis, men still work hardest, measured in economic value.