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Gender gaps in how parents spend their time: do we see a trend towards more equality?

Posted on 05 April 2019 by Svetlana Speight, Research Director .
Tags: Gender equality, Gender pay gap, Parental time use

It is a well-documented fact that men are more likely to be in paid employment and to work full-time, while women take on more responsibilities around childcare and the housework. These unequal divisions of paid and unpaid work can affect job opportunities for women and men and result in long-term effects on earnings. As the UK prepares to examine results of this year’s gender pay gap submissions from private and public sector organisations, are we moving at all towards gender equality in home life?

At the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) we used data from time-use diaries collected as part of the UK Time Use Survey series, with a focus on parents with children aged 16 years or younger. We found several striking differences in how parents allocate their time. Fathers spent on average more than double the amount of time in paid work compared with mothers, while mothers did the lion’s share of housework and childcare. For example, mothers spent on average 2 hours 21 minutes per day cooking, cleaning and doing other ‘core’ housework, while the average for fathers was 57 minutes. In addition, mothers spent 78 minutes per day on ‘non-routine’ housework tasks such as grocery shopping, admin and garden work, while for fathers the average was 63 minutes.

The gender gaps in childcare time were also substantial. Mothers spent 1 hour 5 minutes per day doing ‘physical’ childcare such as feeding and bathing their children, compared to the 25 minutes average for fathers. In addition to that, mothers spent 28 minutes per day on ‘interactive’ childcare such as playing, reading and talking with their children, and 25 minutes on ‘other’ childcare such as taking children to school and after-school activities, while the averages for fathers were 19 minutes and 13 minutes respectively.

The statistics above suggest a very unequal division of paid and unpaid work among mothers and fathers, but has it become less unequal over the last 15 years? To answer this question, we compared data from 2015 with data from 2001. We found that there was a substantial reduction in fathers’ paid work time. In 2015, fathers worked on average 37 fewer minutes per day compared to 2001, while for mothers there was no statistically significant change. Therefore, the gender gap in paid work time has been shrinking. What about housework and childcare?

The gender gap in housework has been shrinking as well but mostly because mothers are doing less housework now than they used to. Compared to 2001, in 2015, mothers spent 25 fewer minutes per day on core housework and four fewer minutes per day on non-routine housework. However, this was not necessarily because fathers were doing more. In fact, fathers were doing less non-routine housework in 2015 (63 minutes per day) than in 2001 (77 minutes). They were doing a bit more core housework (57 minutes in 2015, compared to 52 minutes in 2001) but this increase was not statistically significant.

The trends in childcare time were different. We found that overall, both mothers and fathers are now spending more time taking care of their children than they used to. The gender gap in childcare time is not shrinking as we observe a shift towards more time-intensive, child-centred parenting, particularly among parents in managerial and professional occupations.

So, do we see a trend towards more gender equality in home life reflecting a movement towards more equalitarian gender-role attitudes? We do to an extent, but the reasons for that trend are complex and not necessarily to do with men doing a larger share of domestic tasks. And while choices about paid work and housework are highly personal, the UK government could do more to support couples who want to take a more equal approach to housework and childcare, through policy interventions that might also help reduce the gender pay gap.

Our research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It was carried out by the National Centre for Social Research in partnership with Working Families and Professor Oriel Sullivan from the Centre for Time Use Research.

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