Persistent gender roles in South Africa deprive women of leisure time

In most countries, traditional gender roles within the household are still common due to the prevalence and persistence of patriarchal systems. These roles put a greater burden of care work on women, which can reduce women’s leisure time relative to men. My colleagues, Claire Vermaak, Colette Muller, and I studied this effect in South Africa and found that on average, a South African woman has 37 minutes less leisure time per day than a South African man, adding up to over 225 hours of lost leisure time per year. Furthermore, the size of this effect on an individual woman depends crucially on who lives in their household — or individual household composition — a variable often overlooked in survey data and economic studies which consider the household as a single, aggregated economic unit. 

Until recently, economics has not focused on how individuals within a household spend their time. Individual time-use data, long since advocated for by feminist economists, has now become increasingly available. We used the South African Time Use Survey (2010) to investigate the scale of this effect in our WIDER Working Paper. Analysing time-use provides insights into the ‘black box’ of the household. It reveals how tasks are allocated within the household and highlights gender disparities.

Gendered household composition and leisure time

Both men and women may be spouses, parents, family members, and/or workers. However, these roles are associated with different responsibilities for men and women. Women are traditionally responsible for unpaid work, regardless of their roles. They spend more time collectively on paid and unpaid work than men in South Africa.

Gender roles within the household matter for household composition and leisure time in South Africa. Our study finds that women live in larger households and with more children, employed individuals, and not-employed working-age adults than households in which men live. This is likely because women act as care-givers to children and other household members, and perform household tasks. Overall, women consume about 37 minutes less leisure per day than men, which adds up to over 225 hours less leisure per year. Work responsibilities constrain the leisure time of women.

The link between household composition and leisure time

Our research indicates that leisure time allocations are highly dependent on who lives in the household. A given type of household member (for example, children) affects the leisure time of men and women differently. The genders of other household members are also important. For example, female pension-age household members increase the leisure time of men by about half an hour per day. However, they do not affect the leisure time of women. This is likely due to men reassigning their household tasks to these elderly women, without spending much time caring for them.

We also attempt to understand which factors contribute to the gender gap in leisure time. Our findings emphasize the existence of gender roles within the household. Women have less leisure time than men not simply because they live in different households. Rather, in a given household, other household members affect the leisure time of men and women differently.

The dual effect of gender roles and household composition on leisure time is devastating for women. Analysing leisure time is a way to draw attention to these relatively unexplored aspects of gender inequality.

The gender gap in leisure time matters

Gender roles within the household are slow to change. Studying leisure time clearly reveals another sphere in which gender inequality reigns. But why does the gender gap in leisure time actually matter? Lower consumption of leisure time can have negative effects on the overall wellbeing and relaxation of women. Lack of leisure time can also be detrimental for women’s physical and mental health. These effects can spill over and affect productivity within the household and in the labour market. In some cases, they may contribute to gender gaps in lifetime earnings. Closing the gender gap in leisure time is therefore important from the perspective of women, feminists, economists, and policy makers alike.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation. Work responsibilities of women have increased. This means that women are now even more disadvantaged in respect to leisure time than what our study indicates. Now is therefore the best time to start implementing change. This can be done by addressing the gender inequalities that exist in terms of labour market access, income, and unpaid work. Addressing these inequalities will, ultimately, increase the leisure time of women.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.