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5  Unpaid work

Looking at paid work only tells half the story. Total workload, both paid and unpaid, is important.[10] This has been shown by a range of research, including cross-country research (Bittman 2005, Freeman and Schettkat 2001). Using a variety of data sources, including time-use data, Freeman and Schettkat (2001) compared the total working hours of women from Europe and the United States and showed that these are quite similar. However, there has been a major growth in women’s employment in the United States with American women currently being at the high end internationally in terms of working hours. In contrast, in countries such as Germany a considerable amount of women’s working time is spent in unpaid work. The authors suggest various reasons for this. A major one is that unpaid work such as food preparation, childcare and cleaning houses tends to be marketised or professionalised in the United States. The importance of the marketisation of unpaid work as a means of facilitating an increase in women’s employment has been identified by a number of time use researchers (eg Bittman 1999). Shifting from unpaid to paid work also increases GDP per capita because the previously unpaid work is then captured in national accounts.

In New Zealand, there has only been one time-use survey carried out, so changes in total working hours over time cannot be determined. Across the total population, the data show that men and women’s total hours of work are very similar but, as in other industrialised countries, men undertake more paid work and women more unpaid work (Gershuny 2001, Statistics New Zealand 2000).[11] Not surprisingly, the New Zealand data also show some tradeoffs between paid and unpaid work. Women who work full time undertake, on average, less unpaid work than those working part time, while employed women undertake less unpaid work, overall, than those not in paid work.[12]

When the New Zealand sample is restricted to partnered men and woman with a child under five, Stevens (2002) demonstrates that total hours of work (paid and unpaid) are higher for parents of young children than for men and women without children.[13] Again, this is a pattern seen in all industrialised countries. Not surprisingly, mothers with young children spend a far lower proportion of their total work time in paid employment than fathers (19 percent, compared to 64 percent for fathers). Stevens’s data also show that the ratio of total hours of women’s to men’s work was 0.96; that is, on average partnered men with a child under five work roughly the same number of total hours as partnered women.[14] This finding runs counter to popular belief. However, the potential for New Zealand fathers, not just mothers, to work long hours of combined paid and unpaid work should not be surprising. If New Zealand fathers work long hours in paid work, and are also expected to be good fathers, both in terms of providing quality and quantity time with their children, then total hours of work are likely to be high.[15]

These data are for all couples with young children, not just for couples where both partners are employed. They include “traditional” couples, where the father works full time and the mother stays at home, “neo-traditional” couples where the mother works part time, and a small number of couples where it is the father who stays home and looks after the children. It may be that in New Zealand the potential for mothers’ total hours of work to be lifted above those of fathers prevents some mothers from entering the workforce or from moving from part-time to full-time employment. International time-use data on couples where both partners work full-time suggest that in some, but not all, countries women do more total work. Table 2 shows the ratio of women’s to men’s total work time (paid and unpaid) in couple households with a child under five where both partners work full time. New Zealand is not included in these data.[16] The total work time for couples in Sweden (a country where, as already demonstrated, paid working hours are relatively short and where paid working hours are closer for women and men than in many other countries) is nearly equal. However, in the other countries shown, women working full-time have a higher total workload than men. It is likely that New Zealand’s outcomes would be closer to that of the United States or the United Kingdom than Sweden.

Table 2 – Ratio of women to men’s total work time (paid and unpaid) in couple households with a child under 5 years
and where both partners work full time
US (1995) 1.05
UK (1999) 1.16
Sweden (1991) 0.99
Italy (1989) 1.26

Source: OECD (2001)

So how could long total working hours be reduced? Not having children is one way of drastically reducing the amount of unpaid work (Bittman 2005). This seems an option now being chosen by many Italian women and, in most industrialised countries, by a significant number of well-educated women (Callister 2002). However, parents also have a number of options for reducing total workload, or keeping a high paid workload but still protecting the time spent with their children. They could possibly cut back on leisure time or they may be able to reduce the time they spend in unpaid work.[17] Within the broad area of unpaid work, parents may be able to reduce housework, childcare or eliminate volunteer work.

It seems, however, that childcare time is one of the last areas to be reduced. Studies undertaken in the United States and Australia show that despite the rapid rise in mothers’ labour force participation, their time with children has been quite stable (Bianchi 2000, Bond et al 2002, Craig 2005). Bianchi notes that in the past, non-employed mothers’ time with children was reduced by the demands of unpaid family work and domestic chores and by the use of mother substitutes for childcare, especially in large families. Bianchi comments that employed mothers now try to find new ways to maximise time with children. For example, in all the years studied, employed mothers undertook less housework than non-employed mothers, although total hours of housework were also declining among both groups. The reduction in housework hours can occur in a variety of ways. Standards may be lowered or housework time may be intensified; that is, more work is carried out in less time. For example, dishwashers, microwaves, clothes driers, and disposable nappies may reduce or speed up housework, or individuals may simply work harder. For those who can afford it, “professionals” are increasingly cleaning houses, while other forms of household work, such as food preparation, are increasingly being outsourced. These changes may not only increase the time available for paid work (or for leisure) but also reduce the drudgery of many household tasks.

However, just as importantly, Bianchi (2000) also found that within couples, fathers are spending more time with their children than in the past, potentially increasing the total time children spend with parents even as mothers work longer hours outside the home. Despite a lack of growth in time spent by men on other aspects of unpaid work (such as house cleaning), the trend of increasing paternal care has also been shown by other overseas time use studies in a range of industrialised countries (eg Bittman 2005, Gershuny 2000, Yeung et al 2001). But in countries where fathers work long hours, such as New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, it is difficult to see how further advances in the sharing of childcare could occur without some reduction in either fathers’ paid working hours or, alternatively, in mothers’ time with children (that is, through a further professionalisation of childcare). This latter model would reduce the total amount of parental childcare that would need to be shared.


  • [10]In time use studies, unpaid work includes household work, caring for household members, shopping and any other unpaid work outside the home. Paid work activities normally include paid employment, travel to and from work, any education related to paid employment, and searching for a job. There are a number of boundary problems, however, with paid and unpaid work, and also between these activities and leisure time. For example, shopping may be a leisure activity for some people, while others may view it as an unpaid task (or consider that it incorporates elements of both). Also, while paid and unpaid work are usually seen as separate activities, New Zealand time use data show that there is a small, but nevertheless significant, amount of simultaneous paid and unpaid work undertaken in New Zealand (Callister and Singley 2004).
  • [11]In New Zealand, across the whole of society, women undertake slightly more total hours of work than men (Statistics New Zealand 2000).
  • [12]This, and subsequent reportage of unpaid work, only includes primary activities.
  • [13]These data are calculated not by using couples as the unit of analysis but according to individuals who live in couples.
  • [14]In older child age groups mothers undertake slightly more total work than fathers.
  • [15]There is the question as to why there is now an emphasis on fathers spending more time with their children. As research findings have moved us away from worrying about maternal deprivation they have suggested there can be some benefits in partnered fathers investing both “quality” and “quantity” time with their children. There is also a growing body of research on the benefits (or otherwise) of separated fathers spending time with either their biological children or step children (eg Marsiglio et al 2000)
  • [16]Statistics New Zealand has not deposited the time use data at the international time use study centre at Essex University from where the data shown in Table 3 are drawn from. This calculation could be repeated using New Zealand time use data as there was couple level data collected in the survey.
  • [17]Research by Bond et al (2002) has supported the notion that working parents may be reducing leisure time. In the United States, in 2002 fathers spent 1.3 hours on themselves on workdays, down from 2.1 hours in 1977. But the study found mothers have even less time for themselves -  0.9 hours versus 1.6 hours in 1977.
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