On average, American men have more leisure time each day than American women—the difference works out to about half an hour.
This inequity, according to a recent analysis of government data by the Pew Research Center, starts early. Among teens ages 15 to 17, the analysis found, boys had roughly an hour more of free time each day than girls.
The time-use patterns of teen boys and girls map closely onto the time-use patterns of adult men and women. Teen boys spend an average of an hour more than teen girls each day absorbed in digital screens; men watch about a half hour more TV than women. Meanwhile, the time that teen girls spend each day cleaning and cooking is more than double the time boys spend on those tasks, and that roughly carries over into adulthood. The teenage years, from this vantage point, begin to look like practice for an adulthood of gender inequities.
Parents can play a major role in generating these inequities. Research on housework suggests that parents introduce kids to tasks differently, depending on their gender. Mothers, for instance, tend to spend more time with their daughters cooking, doing housework, and shopping than they do with their sons. Fathers, meanwhile, are more likely to involve their sons in home-improvement projects and leisure activities such as watching TV. “Kids’ activities are in part driven by their own parents’ gender division of labor,” says Jill Yavorsky, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “These really mirror each other in a lot of ways."
And kids learn what’s expected of them not just by doing, but by observing: A study published last year found that men who grew up with working mothers tended to spend more time on child care, while women who grew up with working mothers were more likely to not only work but also work longer hours and make more money than those whose mothers didn’t work. “These beneficial outcomes are due at least in part to employed mothers’ conveyance of egalitarian gender attitudes and life skills for managing employment and domestic responsibilities simultaneously,” the researchers wrote.
Parents send other unequal messages to their children about the work they do around the house. According to data covering about 10,000 families released last year by BusyKid, an app for paying children allowance, the average boy earned $13.80 a week, while the average girl received $6.71—a pay gap at least as wide as the one between adult men and women in the workplace. It’s worth noting that this gap—like the aforementioned disparities in time use—forms well before kids grow up and enter the workforce.
The data from BusyKid also indicated that parents were more likely to pay boys than girls for personal-upkeep activities such as brushing their teeth or taking a shower. These are things that girls, in their teenage years, also spend more time on: According to the Pew analysis, teenage girls typically spent just over an hour on showering, getting dressed, and other hygiene- or appearance-related tasks, while teenage boys averaged 23 minutes fewer. (The gap for adult men and women for such personal-care activities is 28 minutes.)
In an attempt to give their little girls and boys equal opportunities, many parents seek to correct for society-level gender inequities by doing things like buying books about, say, astronauts or dinosaurs—topics typically coded as male—for their daughters. These efforts no doubt expand kids’ ideas of what’s possible, but it’s also important to consider what parents are themselves doing at home. In order to encourage a more equal distribution of housework, Yavorsky says, “they ultimately need to divide it more evenly amongst themselves, to model that to their kids.” Because it seems that those kids, once they grow up, will to some extent think about housework the way their parents did.