Working Hard or Hardly Working? Gender and Pathways of College Time Use

By Natasha Quadlin

Over the past several decades, sociologists have grown increasingly interested in how people spend time. Time use matters not only because it tells us about how people live their everyday lives, but also because it highlights inequalities between social groups. For example, research shows that men and women spend their time very differently: while many men spend their time on paid work and leisure, many women balance paid work with childcare and other household responsibilities. These time use differences ultimately reflect gendered opportunities and constraints, as men and women have different responsibilities and navigate different pressures in constructing their daily schedules.

Although we know about gendered time use during several phases of the life course, we know less about how young men and women spend their time. Young adulthood is an important period because it sets the stage for adulthood and shapes men’s and women’s ideas about what the real world is like. In this study, I examine gender differences in time use among a unique sample of young adults: college students at elite universities in the United States. Many of these students will one day balance the competing demands of high-status work environments and family life, so the sample provides a window into how gendered time use develops within this select group. The study examines how men and women spend their time across three years of higher education to understand how they compare to each other as they make progress toward graduation.

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Four Students Walking on Campus

The data used for this study, the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen, tell us three key things about gendered time use in college. First, women are most likely to balance their time between academic activities and paid work—a pattern that I refer to as “Student Earners.” These women may avoid the parties and extracurricular activities that popular culture tends to associate with college life. Typically, women who are Student Earners remain so throughout their college years.

Second, I find that men are more likely than women to focus their time on partying, extracurricular activities, playing sports, watching television, and sleeping—a pattern that I call “Party Plus.” About 42 percent of men in my sample spent their time in this way for the first two years of college, compared to only 30 percent of women. These students spent substantially less time on academic activities and paid work than other students, especially those who were in the Student Earner category.

Third, I uncover an important pattern regarding men’s time use: in the third year of college, a substantial number of men transition their time use from a Party Plus lifestyle to a Student Earner lifestyle. I posit that this change happens because college men are responding to gendered expectations for the transition to adulthood. Men may be expected to “step up” or “man up” as they prepare to enter the world of work and family. In fact, by the third year of college, men’s and women’s time use is equally likely to resemble the Student Earner pattern.

College is not just a place where students take classes, party, and pursue hobbies and interests—it is also a place where students develop habits that they will carry into their adult lives. My study shows that college students’ time use is influenced by a variety of gendered norms and expectations. By outlining men’s and women’s time use during college, we can gain insight into how gendered time use may evolve in young adulthood.

Natasha Quadlin is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at Indiana University. In her research, she uses quantitative and experimental methods to analyze social stratification in the contexts of schools and families. Her current projects examine:
(1) gender inequality in education; (2) attitudes toward the intra-family distribution of resources; (3) attitudes toward the division of labor in same-sex and heterosexual households; (4) individual-level consequences of college funding sources (e.g., loans, family contributions, grants). Her forthcoming Gender & Society article “Gender and time use in college: Converging or Diverging Pathways?” can be found here

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