Expert Voices Vol 25, No. 09 - September 2021

The gender inequality of time

When the pandemic hit, leaving children without a school to go to and elderly people confined to the house, it was the women of the family who were suddenly expected to become teachers, carers and domestic helpers, often at the expense of their professional careers. A new tool developed by UN DESA may soon tell us exactly how much more domestic work falls on the shoulder of women during a crisis. UN DESA Statistician Lubov Zeifman tells us about it.

Every day, an average woman puts in three times as many hours as an average man into unpaid domestic and care work. Why does this time matter?

“In the modern world, most societies are embracing gender equality, where, in theory, both men and women pursue careers while also sharing family responsibilities, including domestic chores and care work. However, our data shows that the reality is a far cry from equality. At the global level, on average, women spend almost three times as much time on ‘unpaid work’, doing tasks like cooking, cleaning and taking care of the children, while also often working for pay outside the household.

This is problematic for many reasons. First of all, the double work burden on women places a large toll on their mental and physical well-being. Additionally, unpaid domestic and care work remains an obstacle to women’s economic empowerment. For instance, among adults aged 25-54, 83 per cent of women that live alone participate in the labour force. But that rate drops dramatically, to 48 per cent among women in couple households with children. Interestingly, the labour participation of men does not seem to be affected by their household circumstance and remains relatively constant at above 90 per cent.

This means that as a society, we are missing out when 50 per cent of our population, who are just as smart, creative and talented as the male half, is not reaching their full potential, burdened by unpaid household work. What happens inside a household is not a subject for legal regulation, so we need to think of creative policy solutions that could help women break free from this undue burden.”

How do we know how people make use of their time? Where does all this data come from?

“We receive the data from national statistical offices, who in turn collect them from surveys of nationally representative samples.  The term ‘nationally representative sample’ means that even though we are surveying a small portion of the country, the people sampled are representative enough of the country at large.

In terms of the survey methodology, it varies by country, and can include diaries where people record what they are doing for a given amount of time or what we called a stylized questionnaire where people are interviewed about how much time they spent on a list of activities the previous day, or week, for example.  While the survey nature differs by country, the United Nations Expert Group on Innovative and Effective Ways to Collect Time-Use Statistics is working towards methodological guidelines that promote light technical solutions. These guidelines ensure harmonization across countries while also allowing enough flexibility to be adapted to the national context.

You are launching a new tool to measure time use in times of crisis, such as COVID-19. What will this change?

“The collection of time use data can be heavy on the financial, human and time resources.  Yet, knowing how people are spending their time during crises is invaluable to policy makers, as it allows them to see how a given crisis is affecting the daily lives of the population and to respond accordingly. Our innovative tool allows countries to collect such data rapidly and at relatively low cost. In addition, this tool can be modified to reach groups that may have been excluded from traditional time use surveys, for various reasons. It could provide insights into how these groups, otherwise unrepresented, are spending their time, even if it is not comparable with rigorously collected Time Use Statistics.”

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