New study: Men work as much as women do.

The search for better economic policy.
April 16 2007 12:54 PM

Couch Entitlement

Surprise—men do just as much work as women do.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Everyone from economists and sociologists to Oprah knows that women work more than men. Their longer combined hours, at the home and at the office, stop men from taking afternoon naps on the couch and cause fights that end with men spending nights on the couch. And yet according to new study, those longer hours are a myth, because it's just not true that women carry a heavier load.

Three economists, Michael Burda of Humboldt University in Berlin, Daniel Hamermesh of the University of Texas, and Philippe Weil of the Free University of Brussels have analyzed data from surveys in 25 countries that ask people how they spend their time. Some of the countries are rich, like the United States and Germany, some are poor, like Benin and Madagascar, and some are in the middle, like Hungary, Mexico, and Slovenia. The people surveyed were asked to fill in diaries indicating how they spend each segment of their day.

The 24 hours we all have each day can be divided into four broad activities: "market work" that is, work for pay, typically outside the house; "homework," including housework and child care; "tertiary time," including sleep, eating, and other biological necessities that people can do only for themselves; and the time left over, which is leisure. Leisure is not essential to survival, but we like it.

Throughout the world, men spend more time on market work, while women spend more time on homework. In the United States and other rich countries, men average 5.2 hours of market work a day and 2.7 hours of homework each day, while women average 3.4 hours of market work and 4.5 hours of homework per day. Adding these up, men work an average of 7.9 hours per day, while women work an average of—drum roll, please—7.9 hours per day. This is the first major finding of the new study. Whatever you may have heard on The View, when these economists accounted for market work and homework, men and women spent about the same amount of time each day working. The averages sound low because they include weekends and are based on a sample of adults that included stay-at-home parents as well as working ones, and other adults.

In Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands, men actually work more than women, although the differences are small. In Belgium, Denmark, Finland, and the United Kingdom, women work slightly more, though less than 5 percent. Among rich countries, the largest differences emerge in Italy, where women work eight hours while men work only 6.5, and in France, where women work 7.2 hours and men 6.6.

A couple of caveats to all this newfound equality. First, many knowledgeable people believe that women work more. In a survey by the authors of this study, 54 percent of economists and 62 percent of economics students thought that women work more than men, as did more than 70 percent of sociologists. And while the gender equal-work phenomenon has been noted before, "it has been swamped by claims in widely circulated sociological studies … that women's total work significantly exceeds men's," as the authors put it. Although men in many rich countries do not work less than women, they do enjoy about 20 to 30 minutes more leisure per day (over an hour more in Italy) because they spend less time on sleep and other biological necessities.  Men spend almost all of this additional leisure time watching television.

While men and women spend about the same time working in rich countries, women do work more than men in poor countries. And the gap widens as countries get poorer. While in the United States, which has a per capita GNP of roughly $33,000, there is no difference between the amount of male and female work, in Benin, Madagascar, and South Africa, which have a per capita income of less than $10,000, women work one to two hours more per day than men.

So, what explains the difference in the time that men and women spend working in richer vs. poorer countries? It's not a matter of women leveraging their greater earnings in places where they can earn more than men. Alas, there are no such places, and women do not reap greater market rewards in the countries where women work the most relative to men.

The authors of the new study instead think that a social norm explains men and women in rich countries pitch in to the same degree. For both men and women, number of hours of combined market work and homework varies among different regions in the United States. But the male-female work gap remains small everywhere in the country, and in this the authors see evidence of a general equality norm. For example, while people in the South work an average of 7.7 hours per day in and out of the home, and people in the East work eight hours (a daily difference of 20 minutes), the difference between the amount of time that men and women work, again in and out of the home, is only two minutes in the East and 10 minutes in the South. Similar patterns hold when you divide the data by level of education. The most educated quarter of the American population works a combined 8.7 hours, while the lowest educated quarter works 6.3 hours—a difference of more than two hours per day. But when you compare men and women in each education bracket, the difference in their total work is no more than 20 minutes.

Many women with demanding careers tell me that it is women working full-time in the market, not women overall, who work more than comparable men. This study cannot settle that question because it does not report work time separately for people with and without market jobs. But if women with careers work more than men, while women overall work the same amount as men, then women without market jobs must work less than men. Men can use that argument to hit the couch in the afternoon. Or to end up there at night.