Second Shift Redux: New Study on Working Women’s Minimal Leisure Time

The Journal of Family Psychology wasn’t on my summer reading list until yesterday.  The LA Times reported (here) on a new Journal of Family Psychology study about the comparative leisure time of men and women in 2-career families with at least one child:

For a week, the study authors intensively tracked levels of the stress hormone cortisol and the daily activities of 30 dual-earner couples in Los Angeles. With a median age of 41, all couples had least one child between 8 and 10 years old living at home. * * *

With an observer in the home and recording activity of men and women at 10-minute intervals, women appeared to spend about 30% of their time engaged in after-work housework, 18.5% in communication and about 10.6% in leisure activity. Mens’ time was apportioned differently, with about 19% of their home-time spent in leisure activity, 20% spent doing housework and 18.8% communicating.

“Husbands’ greater involvement in leisure and less involvement in housework relative to their wives may benefit husbands’ recovery and detract from wives’ recovery after work,” write the authors. And not just marital happiness, but personal health is at stake here.

The researchers measured subjects’ cortisol levels, one indicator of stress.  To read the full LA Times article, see here.

Until men and women share truly equal responsibility for housework, women will continue to suffer negative employment and other consequences.  This study suggests that those negative consequences include a physical toll on one’s health, too.

The underlying study is Darby E. Saxbe et al., Time Spent in Housework and Leisure: Links with Parents’ Physiological Recovery from Work, 25 J. Family Psych. 271 (2011), here.

-Bridget Crawford

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One Response to Second Shift Redux: New Study on Working Women’s Minimal Leisure Time

  1. webber says:

    Having read the paper, I think not controlling for time spent in paid work seriously weakens what we can draw from this study.

    They had someone loiter around the house on specific days and record what each family member was up to every ten minutes. Then they tallied those observations and calculated the frequency of people spending time on housework as a proportion of the total frequency. The problem is there were way more observations for wives than there were for husbands (92.77 vs 76.6 observations, representing a gap of 2.7 hours). Men appeared to spend less of the time they were at home doing housework (28.57 vs 15.33 observations, representing a gap of 2.2 hours), but they also spent less time at home altogether (men also spent marginally more time working from home than women).

    If men spent this extra time away from the home at the pub or whatever, then the conclusion of the paper is fair enough. But there is evidence to suggest that a significant amount of this additional time for men was spent at work. In fact, husbands in the sample worked on average six hours more in paid work per week than wives (this gap is itself likely to be a significant underestimate, because it very conservatively estimates the hours of anyone working more than 50 hours per week, more of whom were men):

    On a questionnaire completed prior to the study week, spouses were asked to check off “hours spent at paid work, away from home, each week,” with six possible ranges (50 or more, 40–49, 30–39, 20–29, etc.). For the purpose of this study, work hours were approximated as being in the middle of the range, and at 55 hr/week for spouses who checked “50 or more” (likely a conservative estimate of actual work hours for spouses in this range). Both wives’ and husbands’ median score was 45, indicating that most participants worked between 40–49 hr a week; husbands’ mean was 47 hr/week (range 25–55, SD = 6.64), while wives’ mean was 41 hr/week (range 25–55, SD = 7.92).

    The paper also notes previous research that shows that cortisol levels are actually more highly elevated in the workplace than when doing housework:

    A study of dual-income parents found that individuals’ daily cortisol excretion increased with every hour allocated to paid or to household work, while spouses’ time in paid work was linked with higher, and spouses’ time in household work with lower, total cortisol concentration.

    The conclusion that these data give us good reason to believe that women doing a disproportionate amount of the housework poses a health risk via higher cortisol levels is unwarranted, in my opinion. It may be true that women in dual-income households work more than men, and that this leads to the women being more stressed than men, but I’m not sure that this study tells us either way.

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