The half-hour problem

Long-time readers of this blog know that I have a favorite data set: The American Time Use Survey. This annual study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics asks thousands of Americans to keep track of their time. Because it is broad, and based on actual days, as opposed to how people recollect “typical” days, it is more accurate than most surveys that ask people about time.

The 2012 ATUS results were just released. Among the interesting findings? While the work gap between men and women (the number of hours worked per day) has narrowed in the last decade, it is still with us. Among full-time workers, men work 8.3 hours per day on their workdays, and women work 7.8. That’s a difference of 0.5 hours per day.

Another interesting finding: the time gap for “household activities.” These are chores like laundry, cleaning, cooking, etc. If you look at employed people without kids at home, women spend 1.74 hours per day on such chores, and men spend 1.24 hours. In other words, a gap of 0.5 hours per day. (For those with young kids at home, it’s no different: a gap of 0.5 hours per day. For those with school-aged kids, it’s closer to an hour gap between men and women who are both employed).

Are the two related? Probably not in an explicit fashion. I doubt many people say “oh, I’m not going to make those last two sales calls because I need to get home to do the laundry.” In many cases, people’s total number of work hours are not something they would be able to change in the short run in a way that would advance their careers. Perhaps women are more likely to work in industries where the work day is 8 to 4 with a half hour lunch; perhaps men are more likely to work in manufacturing where overtime is sometimes mandated.

But at least from a white-collar mindset of professional work and schedules, I’ve long wondered if this half hour gap in hours worked for pay — and not for pay — has at least a little something to do with the pay gap, and the smaller proportion of women in the “highly visible/thought leader” ranks of professions. I’ve written several times about the op-ed gap — the limited number of op-eds in national newspapers written by women. It’s not that the editors there harbor secret sexism. It’s that they run what they get, and many times, they run a higher percentage of op-eds by women than what they receive by women. If 80% of the submissions you get are from men, it’s hard to hit 50-50. The trouble is that writing op-eds isn’t in most people’s job descriptions. Writing and submitting them requires investing extra hours — outside your normal job — in a highly speculative venture. You make that choice because you want to make your name known and feel you have something to add to the conversation. Often, that means working extra hours. That last bit of time, invested right, can have pretty high returns.

So what keeps people from working up to the point of diminishing returns? Pure preference may be one part. Or perhaps it’s competing duties outside of work. If my husband is traveling, I know that I can’t spend all my energy cranking out something very intense right up until 6 p.m. because, once the workday is over, I have 3 hours of intense solo childcare coming up. Broadly, men watch more television than women. Maybe they spend more energy at the office, knowing there’s not as much work waiting at home. Maybe women preserve energy instead.

Part of preserving energy is not taking on projects that are highly likely to be a “waste” of time. Think pitching new publications, or researching a potential new project, sending extra emails to potential contacts or even meeting them for a drink. These activities don’t pay off immediately, and may never pay off. But in the aggregate they aren’t wastes — these are the things that ultimately move your career forward. So that’s the big deal about the half-hour problem. That last half hour may be where the magic happens.

I’ve tried to strike a good “balance” myself (oh, that word!) I usually go back to work after my kids go to sleep, and get another hour in there. I carve out time on weekends while my husband takes the kids. I try to go to good networking events, even if the logistics are complex. I feel these strategies keep me relatively close to the point of diminishing returns, even as I spend big chunks of time with my little ones.

But what I’m most curious about is the difference in “household activities” — that is, non-market work that’s not childcare — among people without kids at home. Women without kids work fewer hours than men without kids, and they spend more time cooking and cleaning. Is it preference? Expectations? I don’t know. I’m often struck by the finding from an informal survey the Count Me In Foundation did of women business owners in their program whose revenue had crossed $1 million/year. All these women were getting their groceries delivered. If you’re interested in earning big bucks, investing 30 minutes to an hour in your career on a regular basis is more likely to get you there than spending that time pushing a grocery cart around.  

Could you advance your career in an extra half hour a day?

Photo courtesy flickr user servus

15 thoughts on “The half-hour problem

  1. I think it’s both preference and expectations. When my husband and I were both single, I typically cooked healthy meals and he often ate McDonald’s or frozen fish sticks. His metabolism allowed him to eat this way without become overweight (at least then) and he did not care about his cholesterol, blood pressure, etc. This may be part of the longevity gap between men and women- I am far more likely to invest time in cooking healthy food (and thus not in my career) than my husband is.

    1. @Twin mom- an interesting idea – less time spent working and more time spent cooking = longer life. It could work. Men do spend a bit more time exercising than women, though, so that could mitigate that. I think it’s really hard to tease out all of these factors — men are more likely to crash cars or other such things that shorten life expectancy and don’t have anything to do with work or cooking.

  2. A half hour difference is a downward trend though, right? I wonder if the hour gap is a function of older kids or a cohort difference (I doubt that all couples that both work full-time have housekeepers/nannies taking care of the slack). I love the way when I watch Big Bang Theory on the internet half the commercials are showing dads interacting with their kids. Yay for changing social norms.

    I’m sure it’s still lingering differences in preferences (how clean does X need to be) and discrimination assumptions (including occupational segregation… women are also more unionized for example), but an alternative hypothesis is that men can stay longer at work because they need to go to work to socialize so it is actually possible to put more face-time in without burning out.

    As for me: no, it would probably be a bad idea to try to put in another half hour a day.

    1. @Nicole and Maggie- it is a downward trend. Men are doing more housework than they did 40 years ago and women are working more hours for pay. The work gap has actually narrowed in the last 10 years a bit – it was more like a 10% gap a few years ago, and now it’s fairly consistently less. Part of that may be the whole recession thing and women becoming half of the workforce. Women whose husbands lost jobs scaling up from part-time to full-time — that sort of thing. I just find it an interesting question if there is something happening in that last half hour that’s having an outsized effect on how “committed” people seem to their jobs. As for cleaning and cooking, I just try to keep things as simple as possible. And lower my standards. Just because there are dishes sitting around doesn’t mean I have to do them before anything else. Outsource too.

      1. What’s remarkable to me is how quickly the ATUS has been showing changes in the past 10- 20 years compared to the time before when it started (and there are some precursors to the ATUS for specific populations as well that show similar results in terms of male/female time spent with children and on home production). Things were stagnant for a long time, even as women got more and more appliances that made housework faster… they just demanded cleaner houses and more elaborate meals. Then men started doing more housework (and spending more time with the kids), but women didn’t start doing less housework– instead it looked like children were doing less housework and men were taking over what children used to do. This new move towards actual equality at home is just amazing to me .. even if it is mainly among dual-working couples with small kids.
        Now if only we can get kids to start pitching in too.

        1. @N&M – I’m not sure if you ever got a chance to read 168 Hours but I have a chapter in there called “The New Home Economics.” One of my other favorite things to study, beyond the ATUS, is women’s magazines from years past. I got a bunch of old Good Housekeepings, Ladies Home Journals, etc., and wrote about the level of home economic know-how these things assumed. There were two day recipes in there. No one thought to tell you how long a project would take — I guess it was assumed you had all the time in the world. Sewing projects involved mitered corners are presented as if everyone knows what this means. There were instructions on ironing your electric blankets. So yes, as women got more appliances, they just demanded cleaner houses or more elaborate recipes. Then, when they started working more hours for pay, they realized that a lot of that time wasn’t necessary. No drop-off in time with kids, however. That’s actually risen. I get the sense from some writings of the era that moms would send their kids out to bike around town all day, while they then waxed the floors. A modern mom might be more likely to work from 8-4 while kids are in school and after-care, but then after that, she spends her time playing in the yard with them rather than cooking an elaborate dinner.

          1. The increases in time spent with kids for women are actually really recent (again last 10-20 years)– for a very long time that was stagnant whether the mom was working or not. (I think there’s been a slow and steady increase with dad time, only now going up more.) It wasn’t just housecleaning, she was also socializing, and not in playdates! And, of course, doing a ton of unpaid labor through volunteer work.

  3. I think you may be on to something with the idea about energy. Kind of an extension of the idea that people have work limits. I’ll have to think about that. I know that both home and work things can contribute to my “mental load”- but I haven’t really thought much about how that relates to hours spent on things.

    However, this is a self-reported time survey, right? So i wonder if there is some gender-specific unintentional fudging going on? Men feel like they “should” be working more hours, so inflate that. Women feel like that “should” be doing more at home, so inflate that.

    1. @Cloud — ooh, this is the fun thing about the ATUS! They don’t ask you how many hours you’re working. They ask what time you got up. Then what did you do? Then what? Then what? Hours spent working are calculated from that, so you never have to give a total for any activity. This gets around what you’re asking about — which is spot-on. Most time surveys are self-reported, so they are affected by social expectations. People claim to work more hours than they do, though interestingly, some studies of more extreme work weeks find that the gap between actual hours and estimated hours is *higher* for women. Women who are working 55 hours are slightly more likely to talk about their “80 hour workweeks” than men. Maybe it’s because they feel more put-upon (or tired, if they have longer workweeks at home too).

      1. The idea that women are less productive at work because they’re responsible for more of the housework/childcare is one of Gary Becker’s big hypotheses from the 1960s or 1970s. That in turn, he argues, leads to lower wages for women. Not anything like discrimination, which he mathematically proves cannot exist (with the assumption of perfectly competitive markets– of *course* our marketplace is perfectly competitive without a lick of monopoly or monopsony, and women especially aren’t historically subject to monopsony power, nooooo).
        Then he has elaborate totally stupid models that make assumptions about comparative advantage, like that it’s easier to stay at home taking care of small children while pregnant than to sit at a desk doing clerical work while pregnant. And that’s why women are the ones at home instead of men, so lower wages for women and mommy-tracks are totally justified by reality and economic efficiency. Quite obviously he has never been pregnant.

        1. @N&M – I’m not a big fan of Gary Becker’s. I find more interesting Alan Greenspan’s reaction to clear discrimination against women in the labor market in the 1950s — take advantage of it. His economics firm hired many women with PhDs in economics. He noted that other people weren’t hiring them and he could get excellent researchers for good prices.

          1. That’s one of the problems with government these days… they used to benefit from labor market discrimination and had absolutely amazing women and minorities willing to work dirt cheap (there’s a bunch of papers on this about minorities in the Post Office, but it’s also true for women in all sorts of technical fields). Much harder to do that now.

  4. There needs to be an ATUS for the decile of the population with career level ambitions. I suspect that women with career level ambitions are swamped, in numbers, by women who are CNA’s, secretaries, teacher’s aides, school bus drivers, retail clerks, etc- and men who are seasonal construction workers, school bus drivers, landscapers and custodians.

  5. Laura, thanks for sharing the results of this study. Any and all dialogue that we can generate on the topics of time spent and pay inequalities between genders is invaluable to the progression of the American workplace.

    As a side note–I think @Twin Mom’s insight is especially interesting, and probably pretty accurate. Women and men simply value different things, and perhaps women’s extra time spent on cooking and household chores is not all bad (and as professional women, we likely need to pull back from that idea).

    –Allison O’Kelly, founder/CEO Mom Corps

    1. @Allison- thanks for your comment. I think I tend to view chores as being in competition with kid time. Women spend more time with their children than men do, but many professional women wish to spend more. Cutting back on chores is one way to free up time without sacrificing career ambitions.

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