A new study by researchers in Berlin, Brussels and Texas asked participants in 25 countries to keep track of how they spent their days. Time was divided into four categories: market work (work that earns money), homework (housework and child care), tertiary time (eating, sleeping and other biological necessities) and leisure.
As interesting (OK, semi-interesting) as this is, the study offered more. Because men sleep less than women, they enjoy 20 to 30 minutes more daily leisure time, almost all of which they spend watching TV. But the part that really got my attention was the supposed "fact" that conventional wisdom has long believed women put in more working hours than men.
Nearly every news outlet that covered the study led with a gender-war angle, and the research abstract noted that "labor economists, macroeconomists, the general public and sociologists believe that women perform more total work."
Really? From what I've been reading lately, many opinion makers and cultural prognosticators don't seem to think women do enough work, let alone work harder than their male counterparts.
In her new book, "The Feminine Mistake," Leslie Bennetts cites U.S. Census Bureau data showing that work-force participation by married mothers actually declined between 1997 and 2004. There are more statistics where those came from. For instance, a 2004 survey by the Center for Work-Life Policy (also cited by Bennetts) found that 43% of mothers with graduate degrees or high-honors bachelor degrees left the workforce once they had children.
And then there's "Get to Work" author Linda Hirshman, who tracked women featured in the New York Times wedding announcements in 1996. (I wrote about Hirshman in a column last year.) Despite the celebrated educations and hyper-ambitiousness of the average Times bride, Hirshman found that, within eight years, 85% had stopped working full time and half of the mothers were not working at all.
So what are we supposed to make of this?
For starters, not everyone appears to define "work" quite the same way. How else to explain the Berlin/Brussels/Texas study's low numbers? Your average office worker may spend 5.2 or 3.4 hours a day doing actual work; what about time spent commuting, sitting through meetings and feigning interest in the high school sports achievements of the boss' kids? That may not require deep concentration or specially honed skills, but if it's more or less required to keep a job, I'd count it as work.
There's also the unignorable fact that even though men's and women's total working hours were reported as identical, women spent far more of those hours doing domestic labor than paid labor. Think about it: Women with young children who work full time outside the home probably are doing more total work than men. That group just happens to be smaller now.
The way I see it, the real question raised by the study is why so many women so often feel as if they're working harder than men, even when the facts suggest otherwise? Why is it that even an unmarried, childless freelance writer like myself can spend no more than six hours a day actually working (and that would be an impressive day) and still feel crushed by the burdens of work-related activities? Why is it that even though legit research says each gender works 7.9 hours a day, many women won't believe it?
Maybe it's because we're still so consumed with improving ourselves that we can't waste a single moment not doing something that will make us richer, prettier, smarter, thinner and generally more worthy. Whereas a man might play sports on the weekends and classify it as leisure, many women will exercise not for fun but because it's their only line of defense against looking terrible. Whereas a man might see cooking a meal as a recreational activity, a woman might be carrying enough political baggage to categorize it as "work."
Of course, these are giant generalizations. The line between leisure and work might have more to do with a person's overall mood than with her gender. (If you're depressed, even a trip to Disneyland can feel arduous — actually that's true even if you're not depressed.)
But for all the attention focused on whether women are overworked or underworked — or just big whiners — it's worth asking ourselves how much of this labor is self-imposed. In our quest to be perfect or, at the very least, maximize our time, have women turned what ought to be pleasures into chores?