A Shambolic Study of Unpaid Work

Via Twitter I came across this report which attempts to tell us that women actually do more work than men:

Across all world regions, women spend more time on unpaid care work than men. On average, women spend between three and six hours on unpaid care work per day, while men spend between half an hour and two hours. If we consider the sum of paid and unpaid work, women tend to work more than men – on average, 2.6 extra hours per week across the OECD.

Women spend more time on unpaid care work than men. Okay, but what about other sorts of unpaid work? You know, stuff like mowing lawns, clearing gutters, painting sheds, unblocking drains, changing car batteries, assembling wardrobes, replacing loose slates, bleeding radiators? Or does the report only take into account care work when looking at unpaid work? Indeed it does. All that unpaid work done by men just gets ignored (incidentally, I raised this with the author on Twitter, and got no reply.)

It is therefore not surprising that the factors driving change in female labor supply – whether they are improvements in maternal health, reductions in the number of children, childcare provision, or gains in household technology – all affect unpaid care work. Because time allocation is gendered in this way, female participation in labor markets tends to increase when the time-cost of unpaid care work is reduced, shared equally with men, and/or made more compatible with market work.

So changes in technology, healthcare, and societal expectations have changed in ways that primarily benefit women, and they’ve used the spare time to go off and work. Yet somehow they’re still crushed under the patriarchal yoke.

With this said, an obvious question remains: why do women perform a disproportionate amount of unpaid care work in the first place?

Why do men spend a disproportionate amount of time doing unpaid maintenance work on the family home?

As we discuss below, although time-use should be a choice, evidence shows that social norms play a large part in determining gender roles and consequently, gendered time-use.

Men and women split the household tasks between them, each taking those they’re best at? Who knew?

In 1890, only 24% of US households had running water. In 1900, 98% of households in the US washed their clothes using a scrubboard and water heated on a wood or coal-burning stove. It is not hard to see then why in 1900, the average American household spent 58 hours per week on housework. By 1975, that figure had declined to 18. Progress in labor-saving consumer durables in the household has thus been another factor contributing to the rise in female labor force participation, especially in early-industrialized countries. Of course, this is feasible especially because women – both in 1900 and now – take on a disproportionate amount of unpaid domestic work.

Greenwood et al. (2005) present evidence for this by calibrating a quantitative economic model to show that the consumer goods revolution – which, as we can see in the chart below introduced washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and other time-saving products – can help explain the rise in married female labor force participation in the US.

So basically, women’s lives got one hell of a lot easier thanks to technological improvements. Rather than sitting back and enjoying their free time as any man would have done, they demanded to join men in the labour force. That’s fine, I have no problem with that: why shouldn’t women have careers? What I don’t understand is why they are now complaining about doing more work than men.

Some argue that there is a “natural” distribution of gender roles, with women being better suited to domestic and child-rearing responsibility and men to working outside of the home. Such assertions lack compelling evidence and more importantly, perpetuate a status quo that limits the choices available to both men and women.

Several thousand years of observing how household tasks are divvied up voluntarily between couples doesn’t constitute compelling evidence, I suppose. Or do these people think the man of the house orders his wife to feed the kid while he fixes the hole in the roof against against her will?

Instead, it is known that social norms and culture influence the way we see the world and our role in it. To this end, there is little doubt that the gender roles assigned to men and women are in no small part socially constructed.

Well, yes. Society being the result of humans interacting with each other over centuries or millenia, this is hardly surprising. A study of human behaviour which ignores societal norms and culture is of questionable value.

And while it is possible that socially-assigned gender roles emerged in the distant past, our recent and even current practices show that these roles persist with the help of institutional enforcement.

Presumably the millions of men and women in happy, cooperative partnerships are all under the influence of this “institutional enforcement”.

Social norms and culture are clearly important determinants of female labor force participation. So how can social norms be changed?

So western women, having suddenly found themselves with an abundance of free time, joined the labour force to work alongside men. If we take into account the unpaid care work women do at home, and ignore all the unpaid work men do, women work slightly more than men. Therefore we must change society.

In the context of ‘private’ family life, social norms across the world have long dictated that women should perform unpaid care work – taking care of children and elderly parents, making meals, doing laundry, maintaining family relations – while men engage in market work.

I’m beginning to see where the idiots who dreamed up this homework got their ideas from.

Rather, the hope is that with sustained social change, neither women nor men will be obliged to make decisions about time allocation on the basis of their sex.

Only when we have reshaped society will men and women be able to do the household tasks they want to.

If this is what passes for research at Oxford University these days, they might as well merge with the old poly.

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23 thoughts on “A Shambolic Study of Unpaid Work

  1. Several thousand years of observing how household tasks are divvied up voluntarily between couples doesn’t constitute compelling evidence, I suppose.

    Voluntarily!! It’s da Patriarchy which has forced women to be GPs and nursery school teachers, while men get all the cool jobs like mining and labouring and getting shot in the face…

  2. The latest Dept. of Labor (sic) figures from the States takes these ‘male’ jobs into account and gives higher working hour figures for men than women (job + home).

    I am beginning to feel strongly on this issue cos it just ain’t true. All the running the kids around, I did (but you like watching them play football, dear), all the stuff you list above PLUS all the dangerous stuff, all the running off to buy whatever to do the repair, the hanging around for the builders and supervising them, getting covered in shit when the sewer backed up and spending all morning doing it, chopping wood, making compost, digging over the veggie garden, booking stuff over internet… yes it adds up.

    In our case, on top of that we buy in the cleaning and ironing and my nearest and dearest only puts the washing machine on because she wants to.

    So where does all this shit come from? And am I unique? Dunno, but I must be a bit of a prat!

    Anecdotally, I had lunch out with one of my bros who also lives here yesterday. The place was full of wimmen. Something I have noticed more recently. A sprinkling of men and loads’a wimmen…. where the hell do they find the time? 🙂

    I do know some men who live like kings, but there the wives don’t work outside the home and all have home help 🙂

  3. Blithering idiots.

    “Some argue that there is a “natural” distribution of gender roles, with women being better suited to domestic and child-rearing responsibility and men to working outside of the home. Such assertions lack compelling evidence and more importantly, perpetuate a status quo that limits the choices available to both men and women.”

    This is all very well known. What was being bought in market labour used to be muscle power. Men have more. Thus the gender division of labour.

    Now this ain’t true. So, the division is less. We know this, Joe Stiglitz and Amartya Sen (both Nobel Laureates) have written upon it.

    The actual changes in working hours this past century have been – a large decrease in female unpaid working hours, a smaller rise in female paid ones. Plus a decrease in male paid and male unpaid hours. The net effect being both sexes have more leisure time.

    As I say, this is all very well known and people who ignore it are just being idiots. Or political – your choice.

  4. I never understand the point of these studies or this narrative.

    I literally cannot care less whether strangers (everyone but me) divide unpaid labour equally or in a gender way.

    It is not interesting. It is of no concern of mine. If you want to make it equal or change the tasks you perform then do it and talk to you partner.

    Why drag me and research grants into this?

  5. @TimN – did you see that chap who replied to you on Twitter who pointed out that the study includes the whole time the washing machine is running / the roast is in the oven as “care time” to further inflate the figures?

    Is that really what passes for scholarship these days?

  6. did you see that chap who replied to you on Twitter who pointed out that the study includes the whole time the washing machine is running / the roast is in the oven as “care time” to further inflate the figures?

    I did, but couldn’t find anything in the article to support it, otherwise I’d have included it. Would be hilarious if it’s true.

  7. I never understand the point of these studies or this narrative.

    I do. Middle-class wives working for the government or academia want to enjoy a full “career” working a cushy job in an air-conditioned office, but also want to have kids only they don’t much want to do the labour involved in looking after them. They therefore want to petition the government to spend taxpayer money getting someone else to look after their brats, and/or force their employers to pay them full-rate while they do stuff like ironing and other “care” work.

  8. booking stuff over internet… yes it adds up.

    Yeah, one thing I was going to mention was keeping an eye on the finances. What’s the split of men versus women when it comes to keeping an eye on the family pensions and savings vehicles, including researching and swapping between funds? God only knows what kind of husbands the women who believe this shite have.

  9. “God only knows what kind of husbands the women who believe this shite have.”

    Do they even typically have husbands? Or is this kind of study made by and for the Laurie Pennyesque eating-cake-and-having-it types?

  10. Or is this kind of study made by and for the Laurie Pennyesque eating-cake-and-having-it types?

    Them, or male feminists. I can only suppose they’re basing the contribution men make to the average household on their own. Look at the link to the author: does he look like a man that a woman would find useful around the house?

  11. People who complain about unpaid labour are maladjusted humans.

    I am male in my 40s who works from home and I live with a woman who works in an office. I do most of daily chores that need doing and it makes me feel good that I can make life easier for my partner because I love her.

    What I don’t do is spend a lot of time brooding about how I’m getting short changed by society because I’m not getting paid for sweeping hallway or cooking dinner.

  12. “Look at the link to the author: does he look like a man that a woman would find useful around the house?”
    ——-
    Red Green – “If the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy”

  13. “taking care of children and elderly parents, making meals, doing laundry, maintaining family relations – while men engage in market work.”

    Not quite 50/50 split in our household but for some years we broadly evenly split the market work and I did almost all of the school runs, managing uniform, books etc, plus all the shopping, cooking and ironing. And all the maintenance work.

    Interestingly, we have a very well understood split of holiday organisation. We broadly agree which country and when, then wife researches exact location. when we have somewhere to stay I get us there (and ensure we have all the passports in order). I am congenitally incapable of choosing between the vast array of villas on offer (they all look the same to me) and wife seems entirely baffled by logistics of flights and paying for things over the intertubes. It’s an absolutely perfect divide-and-conquer.

  14. I’d also like to know what this “unpaid care work” actually involves. Feeding and toileting elderly relatives is work, for sure. But playing with the children, and interacting with people that you love in ways that nurture them are less like real work.

    Now retired, I’m a sort of part-time house-husband. I’m not as good at it as my wife would be, but nevertheless it’s a bloody sight easier than interacting with office sociopaths and getting shouted at as deadlines approach.

  15. It depends on the woman. I could arrange holidays, take care of the finances, do the cleaning etc…but not to the standard my wife expects. Tried a cleaner a couple of times. Instantly fired. In addition, she is a penny pincher whereas I am happy to pay a 20% premium just not to have to bother spending time shopping. She would rather die.

    All the holiday villas just look the same. Good, that means you can just pick one and it will be fine. No need to agonise over the details or the price. Holiday destinations – again, much the same.

    The point is that it is usually better if the person who cares the most about the outcome of a job does the job. In most cases this means that the traditional division of labour is the natural one.

  16. I’d happily pay for a domestic, am no dab hand at pressing shirts and shining boots myself; yet Mrs G. would only find fault and feel usurped. Though Bernie’s content to live in semi-squalor, the good lady has certain minimum standards. So-called care work is of a different order, however. My mother died in her 50s, exhausted from looking after a husband and a house full of kids, cooking and cleaning for her ageing parents. As you say, modern labour-saving devices has helped alleviate that problem, but there’s still a disparity. Although I take care of most everything outside, fix and paint, shovel the shit, chop wood, maintain machinery, the administrative and financial side, vacuum and dust every week, suspect I’m still in deficit.

  17. I’ve put a lot of thought into this topic since I’ve been married and have a young boy. It’s certainly the case that my wife does a substantial part of the house work and child care. There are many moments when she’s cooking or cleaning and I’m reading my iPad. I suppose I could just be justifying my bad behavior, but these situations arise for the reasons I list below. I’ll use this past Friday as the case study. It was Friday after Thanksgiving which is when we go cut a Christmas tree, haul it inside and put it on that darn stand, and then put up the lights outside on the house. As a result:
    1. I do the very physical work that requires strength and sometimes painful exertion and risk taking. I do all the driving, loading, hauling, and ladder climbing.
    2. I’m physically spent and need rest after these efforts.
    3. As my wife has zero interest in knowing about politics or about anything going on in the world, I feel obligated to keep tabs on current events, social trends, potential dangers, hazards, or emerging problems that we may have to face as a family. This sounds like a phony excuse to surf the internet, but I don’t see much difference in this as a modern form of acting as a sentry to watch for danger that could affect my flock, herd, or gaggle. How else are we going to know whether the social fabric is going to disintegrate or whether our house value, gas price, employer performance, etc. is going to affect our standard of living? Somebody in the family has to know that.
    4. I don’t know about other fathers here, but trimming the toenails and fingernails of a toddler is beyond my pay grade. There are many other functions that I can’t imagine anyone can do except the mother. I’ll change diapers, play with him, take him places, but when he needs to brush his teeth or take some medicine, I feel wholly unqualified.

    Inevitably, these things take up more home time for her than it does me. I can’t say she buys into it all, but we’ve come close enough to where we both contribute at similar levels, but in often very different ways.

  18. This was on the BBC news site front page this morning:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/education-42138669

    Single parent student with a kid can’t land a prestigious graduate position because she wants to work when it suits her. The sheer fucking entitlement of this article…oh, and search for ‘husband’ or ‘father’…good luck.

  19. Oi! Leave Polytechnics alone. I chose a Polytechnic over a University for various reasons and don’t regret it.

  20. I was blathering on about something I was doing around the property the other day when I finally noticed my wife’s total inattention, and asked her, “you have no idea what I’m talking about do you?” Her reply, “no, and I don’t care, that’s your business.” Gender roles just make the division of labor a little more straightforward. I have no doubt if the gender roles were reversed the usual suspects would be going on about the unfairness of the whole thing.

    @Howard Roark. I wouldn’t worry about it. No one actually likes the household work they have to do, regardless of what it is. When I’m doing my end, my wife does as she pleases. When she’s doing hers I do the same.

  21. “You know, stuff like mowing lawns, clearing gutters, painting sheds, unblocking drains, changing car batteries, assembling wardrobes,
    For a couple of seconds there I thought you were referring to your sartorial splendor skills. But then I guessed that you meant flat pack furniture, amirite?

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