Women Have Less Time Than Men — Here’s Why That’s a Problem

When I was a teenager, there were two things I wanted for my future: a career in computer science and to be a mom. This required me to use some imagination, because I didn’t know many women who had both a career and a family. In fact, I didn’t know many women who had a career, period.

Obviously the world has changed a lot since then. I know from listening to my kids and their friends — and from looking at data about how teenagers see the future — that most young women don’t imagine that traditional gender roles will define what’s possible for them.

time gap
Gates Foundation

But even though the labor gap is closing, there’s another stubborn gender gap that no one’s talking about: a gap in the way men and women are expected to spend their time.

Cooking. Grocery shopping. Cleaning. Caring for children and relatives. All around the world, women still spend hundreds of thousands more hours than men doing routine household tasks simply because society assumes these chores are their responsibility.

In the U.S., girls do 100 hours more chores than boys in a year, and boys are 15 percent more likely to be paid for their chores. As these girls grow into women, they do three times more of the cleaning and four times more laundry than men.

This time gap shows up in every single country. On average, women spend 4.5 hours on household chores — which is about twice as much time as men do. In developing countries, especially in places where chores take longer because there’s no running water or electricity, the gap can be as much as five hours. I spent some time in rural Tanzania with a woman named Anna who spends nearly every waking moment just keeping her household going.

When a woman spends a disproportionate amount of time on routine household chores, she has less time to spend on other things, like finishing school, starting a business, going after a promotion, running for office, or even taking herself or her kids to the doctor.

This doesn’t just make women’s lives harder; it holds back entire societies. Economists estimate that the value of the unpaid work women do is roughly equal to China’s GDP. By keeping women from spending their time pursuing employment and other opportunities outside the home, the world is leaving a lot of economic potential — and a lot of human potential — on the table.

The scary thing is that these assumptions are so ingrained in our thinking and habits that they’re hiding in plain sight. If I’m being honest, I’ve even been complicit in perpetuating some of them myself.

I’ve caught myself asking my daughters to clean up their bedrooms while letting my son off the hook. I’ve also noticed that I often ask my son to take out the trash — traditionally considered a male job — but almost never my daughters.  

Because this problem touches all of us, there are things that all of us can do to help solve it.

First, we have to bring this inequity out of the shadows. The routine housework women do is often called “invisible work” precisely because society has grown blind to it. We can’t hope to solve this problem if society doesn’t notice there’s a problem in the first place. All of us have a role to play in getting the world to recognize this work by calling out examples when we see them and encouraging others — in our families, in our workplaces, and in our communities — to do the same.

Second, we can start thinking about how to redistribute this work more equally so that women aren’t bearing an unfair burden. That means having frank conversations with our partners and families about how to handle chores and teaching our kids that boys and girls should be held to the same expectations. We can also encourage governments and businesses to adopt policies that make it easier for parents to share household tasks more equally, like paid family and medical leave.

Third, we can invest in ways to reduce the time household chores take. In developing countries, connecting people with running water and cheap, clean energy will save women hours every day. When I was in Tanzania, I couldn’t stop thinking about how different Anna’s life would be if, instead of walking half an hour to the nearest water source, she had a faucet in her home. There are hundreds of millions more women like her whose lives would be changed, too.

The world already looks very different to my daughters than it did to me when I was their age. But if we really want to dismantle the barriers that threaten to hold back future generations of women and girls, it’s time to get serious about closing the time gap.

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Tagged in: Culture, Melinda Gates