When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in early 2020, it caused sweeping changes to how Americans lived their lives. Children went to school remotely, and more adults started working from home. But an analysis of government data shows that despite the increased amount of time that families began spending at home, little seems to have changed about the way men and women allocate and divide their time.
Men put more time into paid work, while women were pulling in more hours doing unpaid labor such as household work or childcare.
Why does the government track how Americans spend their time?
The origins of the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) go back to the Unremunerated Work Act of 1993. The bill called upon the Bureau of Labor Statistics to “conduct time use surveys of unremunerated work performed ... and calculate the monetary value of such unremunerated work, separately for men and women.”
While Congress did not ultimately pass the bill, it served as a catalyst for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to begin efforts to measure the value of unpaid work — representing a step toward quantifying the contributions of women’s labor.
In 2003, the Bureau of Labor Statistics launched the first official American Time Use Survey. Every year, randomly selected individuals are interviewed about how much time they spent on different activities, such as cooking or working, during the previous day.
Today, experts use ATUS data to measure the time Americans dedicate to uncompensated nonmarket work such as housework, childcare, and eldercare, as well as the time they spend on paid work, leisure, etc.
How do men and women use time differently, and how does that vary based on employment status?
For employed people ages 18 and over, men spent 6.51 hours per day on work, while women spent 5.13 hours on the same primary activity.
However, when combining work with household activities and care for household members to form a more comprehensive measure of total labor performed, the number of hours worked were more similar: 8.79 hours for men, and 8.73 hours for women.
While men and women may perform the same amount of accumulated domestic and nondomestic work, men spent more time being paid for that labor.
While the data looks similar for employed people, there's a gender difference in time spent working for the unemployed. For unemployed people ages 18 and over, the same aggregation of work, household activities, and care for household members reveals that unemployed men worked 3.14 hours, while unemployed women worked 5.64 hours. This suggests that in households where men or women do not have jobs, women put in more hours of domestic work.
More specifically, unemployed women spent 1.22 more hours than unemployed men on household activities daily. Per year, this translates to more than two and a half weeks that unemployed women spent than unemployed men on managing, cleaning, and feeding their households.
How much time do men and women spend on childcare?
At every stage of a child’s development, women spent more time caring for children than men.
When children are younger than 6, women spent nearly twice as much time on traveling for their children, over twice as much time as men on physically caring for their child, and more than four times as much time as men on providing education-related activities.
For parents of school-age children, women spent three times longer than men organizing educational activities, three times longer reading to their children, and nearly twice as much time transporting children to school or other care-related activities. Women also talked to their children for 4.5 times longer than men did.
While multitasking is a common part of modern life, women spent more time caring for children while doing other things than men.
For parents with children under 13, women spent at least twice the amount of time than men did juggling both childcare and household activities, as well as childcare and personal care-related activities.
Also, women spent more time caring for household members than men did: the discrepancy widened drastically in the 25-34 years age group, where women spent nearly 0.9 hours more than men on the activity.
What would narrow the gender disparity in time use?
In 2021, many women still must make the choice between working and providing care for their families, and research suggests that women of color were the most affected, especially during the pandemic.
A study by the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis found that labor force exits from January 2020 to January 2021 were larger for Black women, Latina women, and women with children. In particular, the labor force participation rate for Black women and Latina women decreased by 4.5 percentage points, while it decreased by 1.5 percentage points for white women.
Women being held responsible for most care work (whether for children, elderly parents, or disabled family members) impacts their career and income. According to the CDC, nearly 20% of employed caregivers had to give up working to provide care, while nearly 40% had to decrease their working hours to do so.
The United States is one of the only developed nations that does not universally offer paid leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 gives eligible workers a federal entitlement to unpaid leave for a restricted set of caregiving and medical circumstances. However, unlike in other countries, no federal law mandates that private employers offer paid leave.
And yet, research indicates that providing childcare and paid leave would result in higher labor force participation from women.
One study from the Department of Health and Human Services found that larger state subsidies of childcare raised the chances that women were employed and participating in the labor force. Another discovered that tripling Child Care and Development Fund subsidies for childcare would cause the employment of around 652,000 women with children under the age of 13.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines a primary activity as the “the main activity a respondent was doing at a specified time.” Therefore, in its measurement of primary activities, the BLS does not account for multitasking.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines education-related activities as taking classes, doing homework, and “taking care of administrative tasks related to education, such as registering for classes or obtaining a school ID.” Examples of parents providing their children with education-related activities include helping them with their homework and registering them for school, daycare, or extracurriculars.