Where are We in Closing the Gender Gaps in Time Use?

By Man-yee Kan and Muzhi Zhou

Do women and men spend time in the same way? The answer is a clear No. Across the globe, women do more unpaid domestic work than men, and men spend more time on paid work. There has been little change in the gender gaps in time use over the years. Advocacy for gender equality has lost momentum for this use of time as a political agenda.

Yet, other changes have happened. In most industrialized societies, the percentage of women with a college education has exceeded that of men. Mothers with children are no longer expected to stay at home. Women still shoulder most of the domestic work but does that imply that they work longer total work time than men when we consider both paid work and unpaid domestic work?

We know more about time use in Western than East Asian societies. Sometimes, it is assumed that gender inequality is higher in these East Asian societies because of the emphasis on traditional family ties and the prevalence of men working long hours. We wanted to know if this the case. We wanted to know if the patterns and trends of gendered time use is very different in East Asian societies compared with European and Anglophone countries.

In our recent article published in Gender & Society, we seek to answer these questions by using diary data from both western industrialized societies and East Asian societies: Beijing, China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. And we looked at data from the past three decades.

There are both differences and similarities between Western and East Asian societies.  There is overwhelming evidence of stalled progress in both Western and East Asian societies. In particular, in Japan, Korea, and Southern European countries, the gender gaps in paid work and domestic work are large. The trend toward closing these gender gaps has been extremely slow in Japan and Korea and has stalled in Southern European countries. In Beijing, Taiwan, and countries like the US and the UK, the gender gaps in paid work and unpaid work time are relatively small and these differences have stopped closing in the most recent decade. Still, women have longer total work time than men across both East Asian and Western societies.

Our findings indicate that policies dependent on family ties and the expectation for women’s providing unpaid caregiving hinders progress toward gender equality. The implications of our research are that we must design policies more carefully to tackle the social norms that presume women responsible for domestic and caring responsibilities because those norms impede progress toward gender equality in the division of labour at work and at home.

Man-yee Kan is an Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Oxford. Her research interests include gender inequalities in the family and the labor market, time use research, ethnicity, and migration. She has been awarded a European Research Council Consolidator Grant (2018–2024) for the project GenTime, which investigates gender inequalities in time use in East Asian and Western societies.

Muzhi Zhou is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford and an incoming Assistant Professor at the Urban Governance and Design Thrust, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Guangzhou). She studies how critical life events, such as marriage or childbirth, reshape people’s lives in Europe and East Asia, family formation patterns, and how children spend their time and its implications.