There is a leisure gap in America: The average man has about five and a half hours of free time a day, according to government data. The average woman has a minute shy of five.
What are men doing with that extra half hour? Some of it is spent socializing, exercising, and simply relaxing, among other things. But “about half of the gap is from TV,” says Liana Sayer, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and the director of the school’s Time Use Laboratory.
According to the government’s American Time Use Survey (ATUS), which tracks how people spend their days, men on average are watching three hours of TV or movies a day, while women average two hours and 34 minutes. Watching TV, as the ATUS defines it, encompasses watching live TV, streaming videos, and DVDs, whether on computers, tablets, phones, or actual TVs. (It doesn’t include going to the movies.)
Sayer, in a 2016 paper, called American time use “stubbornly gendered”: On average, women continue to devote more time each day to chores and looking after children than men do. Further, the average American woman spends 28 more minutes a day than the average American man on “personal care”—a time-use category that encompasses activities such as showering, getting dressed, and applying makeup.
A half century ago, there was no leisure gap. What’s changed is that women are working more, but their time spent on housework and child care hasn’t declined accordingly. “The gender gap in leisure is intertwined with college [education] because of the ways college increases paid work time … and also with marriage and parental status, which increase women’s unpaid work more than they increase men’s paid work,” Sayer says.
Television eats up a majority of American leisure time, but there are substantial differences between demographic groups. For instance, according to the market-research firm Nielsen, black adults average more than twice as much TV a day as Asian American adults do. And generally speaking, the older, less educated, or less affluent people are, the more TV they’re likely to watch.
Parents tend to watch less TV than nonparents do. They also have less leisure time overall—and mothers have less than fathers. According to Sayer, in 2012, dads averaged over an hour more free time a day than moms, after controlling for demographic characteristics that make people more likely to be parents. “This adds up over the week to an additional eight hours of leisure, comparable to a standard paid work shift,” Sayer noted in an essay published late last year.
The government’s time-use data doesn’t capture why people use time the way they do—and why TV plays the role it does in the leisure gap—but sociological research can provide some hints.
Sayer laid out two possible theories. The first: “The idea is that men are able to watch more television, perhaps because they enjoy it, and the reason men are able to exercise greater preference in their time use choices is because they have [more] power than women,” she has written.
Relatedly, many moms are made to feel guilty for taking time for themselves. “If they’re taking a yoga class or going out with a friend, they feel like that’s time they could be devoting to their children,” Sayer told me, summarizing research that’s been done on motherhood. “You don’t really see the same type of need to justify leisure occurring among men.”
The second theory has to do with the ranks of men who have become more socially isolated, whether because they’re out of work, less involved in family life, or both. Women, in addition to working more than they used to, tend to have stronger networks of friends and are more likely to raise children as single parents—which together could make women more socially connected than men. Thus, as Sayer has written, “men may devote a greater share and more time to television because this type of leisure does not require social integration.”
These two explanations aren’t mutually exclusive. “I think it’s possible that both are true, depending on the other demographic characteristics of men in that situation,” says Sayer.
One irony of this dynamic is that people might be watching TV—and men might be watching more of it—less because it satisfies them than because it’s convenient. Sayer has suggested that some of the popularity of TV might have to do with the fact that it’s cheaper than some other leisure activities and it doesn’t need to be aligned with anyone else’s social calendar. So perhaps TV’s role in the leisure gap may have less to do with men’s preference for watching than with their preference not to do housework.
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