Paid Work and Family Responsibilities Submission
Sex Discrimination Unit
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
GPO Box 5218
Sydney NSW 2001
Dr Leonie Bloomfield
Office For Women Time Use Research Fellow
Phone: 03 927 52944
The views expressed in this submission are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Office For Women or the Australian Government.
Issue of submission: The impact of the gender divisions of housework and leisure in balancing work and family life.
Work-life balance issues focus primarily on access to formal childcare arrangements and parental leave and other family-friendly workplace agreements. However, gender inequalities in domestic work and leisure and their impact on families in the choices that they make in balancing work and family life are largely overlooked and excluded from social policy. This is surprising given that regardless of employment status, Australian women spend more time each day in domestic work than in childcare or paid employment (ABS, 1997; OECD, 2002). Australian men spend 3.4 times the number of minutes in leisure than in domestic work whereas the ratio for women is 1:7 (ABS, 1997). In this submission, analyses of Australian time-use studies conduced by the author and by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) are reviewed. Time-use studies are the most valid and reliable methods of obtaining detailed information on how people allocate time to their daily activities, including leisure and the often-invisible tasks associated with domestic work (Robinson & Godbey, 1999). The review shows that gender inequity in the time spent in domestic work and leisure directly and adversely affects women’s access to employment and their work-family balance once they (re)enter the paid labour force. This submission argues for the implementation of policies that focus on equalising these gender differentials to assist women to successfully achieve a balance between work and family life.
1. Definition of domestic work
Domestic work refers to unpaid work about the house, excluding most childcare and shopping. In the 1997 Time Use Survey, domestic activities were classified into broad groups that encompassed food preparation and cleanup, laundry and clothes care, general cleaning inside the home, grounds and animal care, home maintenance, and household management.
2. Gender inequality in domestic work
On average, Australian women spend 1.6 times the number of minutes per day in domestic work than Australian men (ABS, 1997). The ratio of women’s to men’s time allocation to domestic work in Australia remained stable between 1992 and 1997 (ABS, 1997). There is also a high degree of gender segregation in the types of domestic work that Australians do. Women spend more time than men do in food and drink preparation and cleanup, laundry, ironing, and cleaning. Men spend more time than women do working in the garden and maintaining the home. However, the work that men do in the home can easily be given low priority and put aside if desired (Baxter. 1993; Dempsey, 1997). Indeed, only 50% of men who participated in the Australian Time Use Surveys reported doing home maintenance or gardening activities at least once during the two days surveyed (ABS, 1992; 1997).
A woman’s stage-of-life affects the amount of housework she does, but men’s housework remains fairly stable across the life-span (Bittman, 1999). In Australia, marriage and parenthood significantly increase women’s housework. Men’s housework declines when they marry and become fathers (Bittman, 1991). Employed mothers and fathers in Australia do slightly more housework on Sundays than during any other day of the week. However, regardless of the time spent in paid employment, relative to fathers, mothers do 1.6 times the housework on weekdays and 1.5 times the housework on weekend days ( Bloomfield, 2004a). These findings suggest that Australian women, especially employed married mothers, use weekend time to ‘catch up’ on domestic duties.
The strongest factors affecting the time women spend in paid work is the time they spend in unpaid work. For men, the less paid work they do, the more time they have for leisure, and vice versa. Essentially, Australian women’s economic status is directly affected by their domestic workloads – they can choose between paid and unpaid work, whereas Australian men’s working lives are largely independent of any domestic responsibilities - they can choose between paid work and leisure (Bittman, 1999).
3. Definition of leisure time
Although there is debate surrounding the definition of leisure, in time-use research, it is operationalised as time remaining after the completion of all activities relating to sleep, personal care, eating, paid work, education, domestic work, childcare, and purchasing goods and services (ABS, 1997).
4. Gender differences in leisure time
In the aggregate, Australian men and women have approximately 40 hours per week of leisure time (ABS, 1992; 1997; Bittman, 1998). However, the combination of time spent in paid employment, housework, and childcare reduces this time for women. On average, married and full-time employed mothers have 19 hours and 30 minutes of free time per week, whereas their male counterparts have 27 hours and 43 minutes of leisure time per week (Bittman, 1998).
Leisure time in Australia is concentrated on weekends, but women’s leisure time is consistently lower than men’s on both Saturdays and Sundays (Bittman, 1998). This gender difference in weekend leisure points to the sexual division of unpaid work on weekends ( Bloomfield, 2004a).
There are also gender differences in the subjective experiences of leisure time. Women’s leisure time is more likely to be contaminated by unpaid work. Specifically, women’s leisure is invariably conducted in combination with housework or childcare, but the opposite is true for men’s leisure (Bittman & Wajcman, 1999; Gunthorpe & Bloomfield, 2004). Women’s leisure activities are significantly shorter in duration are more often interrupted by childcare and housework demands than men’s (Bittman & Wajcman, 1999; Gunthorpe & Bloomfield, 2004). All of these factors reduce the quality of women’s leisure relative to men’s. Even men’s housework and childcare activities border on being leisurely. When men engage with children, those activities are most likely to be conducted in the context of play rather than active care (Bittman & Wajcman, 1999) or while watching television, during social activities, or with wives present (Craig, 2002; McMahon, 1994).
5. Consequences of the gender divisions of housework and leisure
Combining paid work, housework, and childcare, and having insufficient time for leisure are related to time pressure for women, but not for men ( Bloomfield, 2004b). For employed mothers, time pressure is more likely to be experienced on weekdays than during the weekend ( Bloomfield, 2004a), especially when their free time with children is spent having to do other domestic tasks at the same time (Gunthorpe & Bloomfield, 2004). For men, time pressure is largely dependent upon whether or not they have adequate time for leisure, regardless of the day of the week.
Perceptions of time pressure are associated with poor self-rated mental and physical health, increased heart disease symptomatology, and reduced life satisfaction (Brown et al., 2001; Gupta, 2002, Lehto, 1998; Robinson & Godbey, 1999; Zuzanek, 1998). These findings suggest that women are unlikely to find a healthy work-life balance with the current gender divisions of domestic work and leisure. Women experience considerable strain attempting to balance paid work and family responsibilities, which consists of reducing leisure time, combining unpaid work activities and/or combining leisure activities with childcare and other domestic tasks.
There is also emerging evidence to suggest that Australians sacrifice sleep to get their domestic work done and to have more time for leisure ( Bloomfield, 2005a). As women spend the most time in domestic work and the least time in leisure, they are more likely than men to sleep less. Feeling time pressured is also related to less sleep for women, but not for men ( Bloomfield, 2005a). Medical research shows that having less than seven hours of sleep per night is related to a wide range of accidents, serious physical and mental health complaints, and premature mortality risk (see Bloomfield, 2005a for a review). Thus, the objective demands associated with attempting to juggle work and family and the strains that accompany them may be placing women at an increased risk of sleep disorders, poor health, chronic disease, and premature death.
Although men are less likely than women are to experience time pressure or sleep problems relating to work and family commitments, there is evidence to show that Australian men’s lower level of unpaid work and their excess leisure may not be a good thing for their health. In the Australian population, spending less time in domestic work and childcare and spending more time in leisure are related to the perception that one has spare time that one does not know what to do with ( Bloomfield, 2004c). Men are more likely than women to hold such a belief. This negative perception of spare time was, in turn, associated with an increase in sedentary lifestyle behaviours and alcohol and tobacco use. These behaviours are linked to the major causes of chronic disease and death among Australian men (AIHW, 2004).
More recent research on 186 Australian men showed how the avoidance of childcare and housework produced excess leisure time for men. Men’s leisure time was rated as less meaningful than all other daily activities they engaged in, and the majority of their leisure activities were not very interesting for those men ( Bloomfield, 2005b). A lack of meaningful and interesting leisure activity was associated with boredom, which, in turn, predicted an increase in heavy alcohol consumption during leisure time. Meaningless leisure activity and boredom predicted an increase in mortality risk among Australian men even after controlling for all known risk factors for chronic disease and mortality. This study highlighted the ways in which the gender divisions of labour and leisure were more important to men’s morbidity and mortality than the risk factors traditionally believed to be the more proximal causes of premature death.
6. Conclusion and policy recommendations
In contemporary Australian society, domestic responsibilities and leisure time availability place women at a significant social disadvantage to men. These gender inequalities are major barriers to women achieving a healthy balance between work and family life.
Many government policies support parents who wish to return to the workforce and make it easier to balance work and family, including family-friendly workplace initiatives and the funding of formal childcare arrangements. However, the problems for women who attempt to combine work and family go far beyond what is addressed in current policy. Additional strategies may need to be developed to assist women who want to reduce their time commitment to housework. Such initiatives may further increase women’s opportunities to equally participate in the labour market, augment gender equity in terms of domestic work and leisure time, and attenuate some of the strain many women experience in attempting to combine work and family.
Policies aimed at making it easier to balance work and family could also consider the problems many Australian men may face in balancing work and leisure and the resultant health implications. Incentives could be developed to encourage men to exchange some of their leisure time for greater involvement in family and domestic responsibilities. Increasing men’s participation in unpaid work has been a persistent argument in work and family debates, but change has been slow (Pocock, 2003). Educating men about the health damaging effects of their leisure behaviours may expedite change.
Increasing men’s participation in housework may overcome some of the social disincentives to starting families. Overseas research indicates that gender inequity in the division of household labour might be a major reason for falling fertility rates in industrialised nations. Men’s greater involvement in childcare and housework has shown a positive relationship to the birth of a second child in Italy (Cooke, 2003), Hungary (Olàh, 2003), and the United States (Miller Torr & Short, 2004).
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