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Time after time: How men and women spend their time and what it means for individual and household poverty and wellbeing

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There are new efforts underway to measure poverty in a way that exposes differences in poverty levels between individuals living under the same roof. The traditional approach of measuring poverty at the household level masks these differences, which can understate the disadvantages faced by women and children.

Measuring how individuals within a household spend their time is one way to complement efforts to measure poverty and better understand differences in wellbeing between males and females, although lack of data comparable across time and countries makes measurement challenging.

A new policy research working paper, Differences in Time Use: Allocating Time between the Market and the Household, addresses this challenge and provides updated and nuanced results of the 2012 World Development Report on Gender and Development. For a broad sample of countries, it analyzes time use patterns across market work (paid and unpaid work for the production of goods and services sold in the market), unpaid childcare and domestic work, personal care activities, and leisure, social, and study activities over the lifecycle.

Time use data at all levels of income is harmonized for 19 countries in 7 regions: Albania, Argentina, Bangladesh, Colombia, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, Iraq, Mexico, Moldova, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, South Africa, Timor-Leste, Turkey, Uruguay, the United States, and the West Bank and Gaza.

Image: Women working in a woodshop in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Women working in a woodshop in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo: to Jessica Castillo Belmont, World Bank Group.

Despite (Limited) Progress, Women Are Still Penalized Relative to Men

Our findings confirm popular perceptions: for men, getting married and having children means more time for leisure and earning money in the marketplace. For women, it means more unpaid childcare and domestic work, less leisure time on average, and less opportunity to earn in the marketplace.

Comparing our findings with those reported by studies analyzing earlier periods, we conclude that progress in reducing gender gaps in time use has been uneven. Some countries have made improvements in recent years, while differences persist or even widened in others.

For example, the gender gap in time allocated to market work diminished in 4 of 10 countries (Ghana, Guatemala, USA and Timor-Leste); it increased in 5 countries (Argentina, Iraq, Mexico, South Africa and West Bank and Gaza), but the change was rather small in two of them (Argentina and South Africa); and in one country (Uruguay) the gender gap remained unchanged.

With respect to time allocated to unpaid childcare and domestic work, in 2 out of the 10 countries (Argentina and Uruguay) the gender gap increased; in 2 countries, the gender gap barely changed (Mexico and Guatemala); and in the remaining 6 countries the gender gap declined. While understanding the mechanisms behind these dynamics is out of the scope of this study, it is possible to identify a wide range of factors that might help explain why some countries experienced a decline in the gender gap in unpaid childcare and domestic work during the period of study. For example, Timor-Leste introduced paid paternity leave and granted women equal ownership rights to property. In South Africa, rural electrification has operated as a labor-saving technology, decreasing women’s housework. In the United States, the change appears to be a gradual evolution towards a more equitable distribution of work and a substantial change in gender roles observed in the last decades.

Understanding whether these countries’ actions explain (part of) the reduction in the gender gap in unpaid childcare and domestic work could prove a valuable area for further research.

Meanwhile, gender differences in time devoted to personal activities—including personal care and leisure, social activities and studying—for the 8 countries with information, the gap increased in 4 countries (Guatemala, Mexico, USA and Uruguay) and declined in the other 4 (Argentina, Iraq, South Africa and West Bank and Gaza).

These findings are consistent with those from developed countries showing that while the number of hours that men allocate to childcare and domestic work increased slightly in recent decades (Sayer, 2016; Sullivan, 2011), such small increases have not translated into a significant change in women’s time use patterns.

Time use over the life cycle

We also found that in all countries men’s and women’s time use tend to converge as education increases, although gender differences persist even for more educated women and men. Echoing popular perceptions, the study finds that the presence of children in the household brings about important adjustments in time use for both men and women: women reduce the amount of time allocated to market work and increase their unpaid childcare and domestic work hours, while the opposite occurs among men as shown in the figures below.

Youth (15-19) is the stage of life where both males and females work less in the market and devote the least amount of time to unpaid childcare and domestic work. Men’s time devoted to market work spikes initially at 20-44 years of age for men without a partner and without children and increases further with co-habitation and fatherhood, declining thereafter. For women, the number of hours working in the market also spikes initially (albeit from a lower starting point than for men) at 20-44 years of age for women living without a partner and without children, but it then drops with co-habitation and with the transition to parenthood. Compared to mothers with a partner and children at home, mature women (45-64) work longer hours in the market during the empty nest phase.  

Complementing this data, as the chart below shows, women’s involvement in unpaid work peaks with the presence of children—regardless of the phase of the lifecycle—and the largest increase is experienced by women of prime productive age (20-44) who have a partner, which is also the time of life when women are more likely than men to live in poor households. In contrast, men’s unpaid domestic and childcare work is relatively flat across the lifecycle.

Factors driving gender gaps in time use

The differences in time use are driven by factors ranging from gender norms (Gornick and Meyers, 2003) and limited access to productive assets (such as land and credit) (Quisumbing et al., 2004; Aidis et al., 2007; Muravyevy et al., 2009; World Bank, 2010; Hallward-Driemeier, 2011), to uneven parental leave systems, lack of childcare, labor market regulations, and personal income tax regimes, relevant in high income countries (Gornick and Meyers, 2003; Botero et al., 2004; Montenegro and Pagés, 2004; Apps and Rees, 2005; Grown and Valodia, 2010; Viollaz, 2018; Adnane et al., 2019).

The distribution of responsibilities within households also reinforces gender differences in time use. Women tasked with childcare and other domestic work are often consigned to take lower quality jobs because of perceived or actual new costs associated with taking a higher quality job, such as having to take on the additional cost of daycare.

In conclusion, gender differences in time use can be a driving force of gender gaps in access to economic opportunities and, ultimately, a constraint for development. Evidence has shown that breaking out of this trap requires targeted policies to lift the constraints on women’s time, increase their access to productive assets and correct market and institutional failures.

We encourage you to read about additional findings in the full paper. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!


Eliana Rubiano-Matulevich

Senior Economist at the Poverty and Equity Global Practice for Latin American and the Caribbean at The World Bank

Mariana Viollaz

Senior Researcher at the Center for Distributive, Labor and Social Studies (CEDLAS) at UNLP

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