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Harnessing time-use data for gender equality policies and beyond

If there is anything we share equally in this world – it is the number of hours in the day. However, how we allocate and use those 24 hours differs greatly. The type of activities we undertake, their duration and intensity can either enhance or compromise our well-being. Just like income, wealth, or other resources, availability, use and allocation of time can signify privilege or deprivation.

Interest in time allocation is not new and began over a century ago. This early interest varied from, for instance, valuing labour time involved in production, quantifying wages by units of time and assessing how to increase productivity, and, importantly, understanding the impact of long working hours on the work-life balance of working-class families. As women increasingly entered the paid workforce in factories and offices, the concept of unpaid domestic and care work started to emerge more prominently. There was an appetite for understanding and evaluating time use between women’s paid and unpaid work and also to measure differences in time use between women’s and men’s contribution to unpaid work.

Time-use data collection approaches evolved in the twentieth century and have become a part of official statistics. These data have traditionally been used to understand how people allocate time to productive activities; how they combine paid work and care responsibilities; the distribution of unpaid work between women and men, such as domestic cleaning, cooking, collecting water, caring for children and the elderly; and the contribution of this unpaid work, otherwise invisible, to the national economy.

Whether through a self-administered time-diary, a recall interview, or a short task list, time-use data collection records different activities and tasks individuals undertake during a given reference period. In effect, time-use statistics are quantitative summaries of how individuals spend or allocate their time over a specified period - typically over 24 hours of a day or over seven days of a week. Such data collection can provide the level of detail to shed light on, for instance, patterns of activities (episodes or occurrences) as well as simultaneity of activities (for example, cooking and child-minding at the same time) individuals undertake.

Sustainable Development Goal 5 calls for recognizing and valuing unpaid domestic and care work as an accelerator for gender equality. Evidence suggests that much unpaid work is performed by women and girls in most societies, often leaving them with less time to focus on their well-being, such as education, income-generating activities, access to healthcare services, or even leisure. Women and girls facing multiple and intersecting forms of inequalities and discrimination are likely to be at a greater disadvantage in how they can allocate and use their time due to competing responsibilities and priorities.

From a policy perspective, this most obviously points to the need for interventions towards a fairer distribution of household and care-related tasks between women and men in families and societies. The Political Declaration made on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women called for “Recognizing and taking measures to reduce and redistribute women’s and girls’ disproportionate share of unpaid care and domestic work and promoting work-life balance and the equal sharing of responsibilities between women and men within the household.”

We need to provide opportunities and means to make this possible through policy interventions such as paid paternity or parental leave, more flexible working arrangements for women and men, availability of institutional care facilities, and appropriate social protection schemes. 

Time-use data can also provide insights on policy issues beyond gender equality and unpaid work. It can help us understand women, men, girls and boy’s health and well-being patterns by measuring the time they can spend on exercise, rest or leisure. People’s exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution through time spent cooking, using unclean fuels, or commuting in urban traffic environments. Access to clean energy, water and sanitation by the time spent by household members in collecting fuel and water. Or even the visibility of women and men’s contribution to sustainable development through their engagement and time-spent in natural resource and waste management.

This clearly reflects the flexibility and versatility of such data sets to address emerging information needs and new uses, making such data sets particularly useful in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.

More than 30 countries have conducted time-use data collection in the Asia-Pacific region through almost 100 different data collection exercises –  led mainly by the national statistical office. But most of the data has not been used – partly due to a lack of awareness of the policy applications. Against this background, ESCAP has worked with eminent researchers and experts to compile a set of research studies to demonstrate policy uses of time-use data. Harnessing Time-use Data for Evidence-based Policy, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Beijing Platform for Action guides and demonstrates the use and analysis of time-use data for policy advocacy.

Hopefully, this resource will inspire national statistical systems to make better use of their existing time-use data for policy-relevant analysis and conduct further time-use data collection as an integral part of their official statistics work programme and sustainable development ambitions.

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Sharita Serrao
Statistics +66 2 288-1234