How Men and Women Spend Their Time

Despite years of data, the unpaid-labor gap hasn’t improved much at all.

A woman puts a baby to bed in a crib.

In one of my many failed schemes to introduce a more equitable division of labor into my home, I stuck lined Post-it Notes on the refrigerator. “Please write down the chores you do. At the end of the week, we’ll figure out if anything needs to change.” I recorded my contributions zealously: cooking, dishes, laundry, sweeping, swiping (bathrooms). Although they did a few household tasks—a load of dishes here, a trash run there—my husband and daughters declined to participate. Perhaps they forgot. But I suspect that they didn’t want to recognize who does and who doesn’t benefit from our existing arrangement.

The results of the 2018 American Time Use Survey (ATUS), released last week, succeed where I didn’t in demonstrating the continuing imbalance in American family life—writ large. Over the past calendar year, U.S. Census Bureau staff, acting on behalf of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), called about 9,600 people 15 years old or older and grilled them about all their activities in the 24-hour period starting at 4 a.m. the previous morning, from having sex and putting on hand cream to removing lint from the dryer and winterizing a boat.

No surprise, the ATUS found a gap between how men and women spend their time. Both sexes care for their home, children, and elders, but women dedicate 3.1 hours each day, 74 minutes more than men, to these unpaid labors of love. And despite the perception that 21st-century men are more egalitarian, the domestic-duty divide has closed by only 11 minutes since 2003, the first year of the survey. Also no surprise: Both sexes work for pay, but men clock an average of 4.16 hours, 68 minutes more than women, on the job each day, translating into higher income and more benefits. (Averages are drawn from across the entire population, and include those who are not employed.)

As it happens, exposing this gender disparity is precisely what the ATUS was intended to do. Although the annual survey began operations under George W. Bush, a president notoriously hostile to statistics (he tried, unsuccessfully, to eliminate the program in 2008), it has roots in a 1990s feminist economics movement to counter market-based accounting systems, such as GDP, that do not include women’s unpaid work at home. But data from the daily activity interviews have never been used to create public policy that might help improve women’s lives. The ATUS has raised awareness, without really changing anything.

The idea of quantifying household production dates to 1855, when a French economist, Frédéric Le Play, published 57 monographs measuring men’s, women’s, and children’s contributions to the family budget by the number of days a year they dedicated to different tasks. Le Play did not distinguish between paid and unpaid labor, but when economists revisited the idea in the 20th century, they focused on a nation’s “productive labor” in the workplace. At the time, men usually worked in industrial, trade, or professional jobs while most women toiled as housewives, meaning their contributions were excluded.

In the 1970s, women entered the workplace en masse; during that decade, female wage earners increased by 50 percent, according to BLS data. They still, however, maintained primary responsibility for the home and family. “Every woman basically knew that I’ve got two jobs, one that’s for pay and one that isn’t for pay,” explains Karen Nussbaum, the executive director of Working America and the director of the U.S. Women’s Bureau from 1993 to 1996. Marilyn Waring, a renegade New Zealand politician turned activist, had what “every woman basically knew” on her mind when she wrote If Women Counted; published in 1988, If Women Counted argued that the invisibility of women’s at-home labor in national accounting systems had devastating consequences for them—and for society in general.

“If you are not visible as a producer in a nation’s economy, then you’re going to be invisible in the distribution of benefits. And wherever I was, this was the world situation for women,” Waring says in a documentary about her life. “I look at [unpaid labor] as the single largest sector of any nation’s economy, and the one on which all market activity depends,” she told me. In her book, she made the case for quantifying this work in the only currency that made sense. “The one common denominator that all of us have, the one thing that we might be said to choose to exchange that is our own, is time,” she says in the film.

Partly in response to Waring’s blunt call to action, the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus in 1991 held a workshop on unremunerated work. Afterward (and again in 1993 and 1995), Democratic Representative Barbara-Rose Collins of Michigan, a single, working mother, introduced legislation tasking the BLS with collecting data about women’s unpaid labor and calculating its monetary value. In 1994, Nussbaum, working closely with the White House, organized the Working Women Count! project, which surveyed more than 300,000 working women about the problems they faced on the job.

“One of the questions that we asked was: What’s the most important thing that the president needs to know about being a working woman? And the number one issue was balancing work and family,” Nussbaum says. To explore what could be done, Nussbaum held a series of meetings with the director of the U.S. Census Bureau, the economist Martha Farnsworth Riche. “There were a number of policy issues that surfaced—child care, paid time off, the workplace side of the solution. But the home side was what would be addressed by this notion of wages for housework, and the first step for that is how do you quantify the unpaid labor women do? That’s the basis of the Time Use Survey,” Nussbaum explains.

“Much of the work we do is not valued—not by economists, not by historians, not by popular culture, not by government leaders,” lamented Hillary Clinton in her opening address to the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing. Time-use surveys were an explicit part of the platform that came out of that conference, directing nations to “devise suitable statistical means to recognize and make visible the full extent of the work of women and all their contributions to the national economy, including their contribution in the unremunerated and domestic sectors.” In response, the BLS, headed by the economist Katharine G. Abraham, also a working mother, laid the groundwork for what would become the American Time Use Survey. Abraham had already left the bureau when the first annual snapshot, for the 2003 calendar year, was made public, in September 2004.

In fact, the United States came embarrassingly late to the time-use party, preceded by Australia (1974), the United Kingdom (1974), the Netherlands (1975), Finland (1979), Italy (1989), Israel (1991), Germany (1991), Austria (1992), France (1998), and Canada (1998). While no other nation besides the United States conducts a yearly survey, approximately 80 countries have done so at least once and many do so every five or 10 years. Various international efforts, including by the UN, Britain’s Center for Time Use Research, and the International Association for Time Use Research, have helped synchronize studies from around the world.

Robust data collection has given economists, government officials, and the public a precise picture of the gender gap at home and at work—but so far, anyway, it isn’t closing.

Trends in Unpaid Care Work in the U.S.A.

The Unpaid Care Work and the Labor Market: An Analysis of Time-Use Data Based on the Latest World Compilation of Time-Use Surveys, by Jacques Charmes. International Labor Organization, Geneva, June 2019.

The economist and statistician Jacques Charmes finds little change over time in the division of housework, cooking, and caretaking in the United States, and notes that American conditions follow an international pattern. “At the world level, women dedicate 3.2 times more time than men to unpaid care work: 4 hours and 32 minutes (272 minutes) per day against 1 hour and 24 minutes for men (84 minutes),” Charmes writes in an as-yet-unpublished analysis of labor trends. In 25 countries representing all continents and levels of development, women’s unpaid care work dropped by only 10 minutes on average from 1998 to 2012; men’s increased by a mere 13.

Global Trends in Total Work by Sex, 1990s–2010s

This chart includes data from 25 countries. (The Unpaid Care Work and the Labor Market: An Analysis of Time-Use Data Based on the Latest World Compilation of Time-Use Surveys, by Jacques Charmes. International Labor Organization, Geneva, June 2019.)

Gender equality seems to have stalled out in the 21st century. The distribution of paid and unpaid work by sex, instead of converging, has leveled off into two parallel lines.

Waring—the New Zealand activist—suggested that continuing disparities might be a result of preference: “Let’s not get away from the fact of childbearing and raising. That stage in life when children are under 5 is the most significant one, period, and a lot of women want to do it …. The whole world does not want to be in the labor force all the time.” Supporting this theory, 20 percent of part-time female workers say they work that way by choice, according to a BLS analysis.

But if Waring is right, that doesn’t mean the status quo is acceptable. Fewer hours on the job mean less money and fewer benefits—and less prestige and slower advancement. Part-time jobs, low-paying jobs, or episodic employment have serious consequences for women’s lives.

  • While 44 percent of men have employer-sponsored private health insurance, only 35 percent of women do. A full 24 percent get insurance through their spouse’s job.
  • The average monthly Social Security payment for either retired or disabled women is about $300 less than the $1,565 or $1,320 that men get.
  • Women have an average of $115,000 in retirement savings compared with $203,000 for men, according to Prudential Financial’s 2018 Financial Wellness Census. Nearly half don’t have any retirement savings at all.

Almost a quarter century after the 1995 Conference on Women, feminists have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, turning time-use surveys into a tool to make women’s labor visible. We now have plenty of data about the continuing disadvantage women face for their caretaking roles; all that’s left is to actually do something about it. Presidential candidates, where are your proposals to address women’s heightened vulnerability to losing their health insurance; their greater likelihood of being poor, especially if of color; their lower Social Security benefits; and their chance of retiring with little to no savings?