Two major features of modernity could be the democratisation of leisure, on the one hand, and the feeling of lack of time, on the other. The two traits seem to explain each other, since the ability to enjoy an increasingly wide range of experiences could be precisely the reason why we feel that we do not have enough hours or days to do everything we want to do.
This feeling is to blame for the fact that we are suffering from time stress, a mental perception with important physical consequences. Faced with this new reality, it’s necessary to ask ourselves: is there also gender inequality in leisure, and do men and women enjoy the same quality and quantity of leisure?
What will I read in this article?
- Gender inequality in leisure
- Measures to tackle leisure inequality
Gender Inequality in Leisure
The word comes from the Latin otium, and means rest. The dictionary defines leisure as free time, outside of the usual obligations and occupations. The opposite of leisure is business (negotium). The negation (nec) of leisure (otium). And the fact is that leisure, as so many academics have recently demonstrated, is a good explanatory element of our quality of life.
“The opposite of otium is negotium”
Leisure covers many facets that make for a better life. It is a non-monetary wellbeing resource that has a positive impact on our health and our perception of well-being. In fact, leisure has been a clear indicator of social progress and freedom for modern intellectuals. So much so that the Universal Declaration of Universal Rights includes in its article 24 the right to rest and enjoyment of free time. What would a life be without celebrations, parties, entertainment? Can we imagine a life without art, cinema, theatre, dance, live concerts, shows? What would a life be without hobbies, without physical exercise, running, jumping, dancing, swimming in the sea, walking in the mountains…? Leisure matters, and the quality of leisure explains the quality of our lives. There’s a boom in research on the importance of leisure time, but there’s little attention to its distribution and sources of inequality.
In previous articles we’ve seen how inequality is present in old age, work or leadership. Today we bring you another new area. As recent articles point out, men and women do not enjoy the same quantity or quality of leisure, generating another avenue of inequality, much less explored and considered as we said. Professor Mara Yerkes of Utrecht University and her colleagues have recently published a study comparing the quality of leisure between men and women in 23 countries.
“Men and women enjoy neither the same quantity nor the same quality of leisure”
The authors of the study hypothesised that the quality of leisure would be lower in women, as previous studies have confirmed that women’s leisure is more connected to “family time“, less relaxed and less free of interaction with children. And this lower leisure quality in women would be moderated by the country in which they live, reducing the difference in leisure quality between men and women in more egalitarian countries.
For their empirical demonstration, the authors used a database with more than 28,000 participants from 23 countries, measuring leisure quality with two indicators:
- The level of time pressure during leisure.
- The level at which the activity itself allows them to relax and recover energy.
To understand the importance of the context and the country in question, they examined:
- The prevailing gender ideologies in the context.
- Percentage of children aged 0-2 years in formal care (i.e., kindergartens).
- The ratio of women in parliament.
- The availability of paternity leave.
After rigorous analysis, the results of the study revealed this reality: the quality of women’s leisure time was lower than men’s and this quality was moderated by country characteristics, where places with more traditional gender norms, low levels of minors in formal care and low levels of women in political power further widened such differences.
According to the study, women seem to enjoy a lower quality of leisure time:
- because they feel some pressure to finish the leisure activity they’re enjoying.
- because they’re able to recover or relax less than expected from such activity.
According to academics, these results can be explained by a number of reasons, which can be summarised in three:
- The total workload (paid and unpaid) is higher for women than for men. The increase in hours in the (paid) labour market that women have experienced in recent decades has not been compensated by a decrease in domestic work. This reality has led to what’s known as the “double working day” (Hochschild, 2021). This higher number of hours worked, whether paid or unpaid, is what partially explains the lower quality of women’s leisure time, as in a certain way it invites women to end their leisure activities in order to satisfy their domestic and work needs.
- Gender norms also play an important role. Women’s sense of responsibility towards others – the ethic of care – invites them to adjust leisure time to the needs and preferences of others, be it partners or children (Miller and Brown 2005). Moreover, according to experts, modern norms of “intensive mothering” seem to generate feelings of guilt when engaging in leisure activities, as it is thought that such time should be spent on family responsibilities.
- The barriers between domestic responsibilities and leisure time are less well defined among women than among men. Academic research seems to reveal that family and leisure are much more permeable among women than among men. Even during holidays or periods of relaxation, women have been found to experience more stress than men in fulfilling domestic responsibilities (Deem 1996). This high permeability is another reason why women may perceive that they relax or recover less than expected after a leisure activity.
Can we do anything to reduce gender inequality in leisure?
Against this backdrop, it’s necessary to rethink or work on some points. We outline some of them.
- As a society, we need to value the importance of the quality of leisure in our lives. This is stated in article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Therefore, based on the right to free time and being aware of its benefits and, at the same time, knowing the inequalities that exist in the quantity and quality of leisure time between men and women, we need as a society to give it the value it has for the person, for their emotional health, for their relationships or for their work performance. For example, as a couple, it would be interesting to reflect on the quantity and quality of leisure time enjoyed by both partners.
- Governments can promote public policies, and family policies, which have been shown to have an indirect impact on the quality of women’s leisure time. For example, it has been shown that differences in the quality of leisure time between men and women are smaller in countries where governments offer more support to families, for example by providing early childhood coverage (public kindergartens from 0-3 years), promoting fatherhood policies that involve fathers in parenting, or having more women in parliament. This institutional support allows women, especially working mothers, to better separate and delimit their domestic responsibilities from their leisure time, facilitating a better quality of their leisure time.
- The media could provide data on the differences in leisure quality between men and women. Both quantitatively, as the study presented here does, and qualitatively through women’s own voices and experiences. Giving visibility to those women who, in their dynamics, perceive how they end up fulfilling domestic responsibilities to a greater degree than men during their holidays. Sharing these experiences can help to unmask the sources of inequality, which are sources of discomfort.
- Organisations could encourage organisational strategies that allow workers to enjoy leisure, recuperation and fun time without feeling guilty or in conflict with the image of the ideal worker. In this sense, it is essential to rethink organisationally what characteristics the (new) ideal worker has, and what policies support this new conception.
- Organisations, but supported by other social actors such as political parties together with entities and associations dedicated to culture, families, upbringing and leisure time, should promote a culture of effort and work well done compatible with a culture that values spaces traditionally considered as non-productive.
Rest and relaxation are essential to be able to cope with the rest of the tasks, both professional and family, that we perform in our daily lives. Sharing these responsibilities and ending gender inequality in leisure is fundamental to improving society and organisations.
- Deem, R. (1996). Women, the city and holidays. Leisure Studies, 15(2), 105-119.
- Hochschild, A. (2021). La doble jornada. Familias trabajadoras y la revolución en el hogar. Capitan Swing.
- Miller, Y. D., & Brown, W. J. (2005). Determinants of active leisure for women with young children—an “ethic of care” prevails. Leisure Sciences, 27(5), 405–420. doi:10.1080/01490400500227308
- Yerkes, M. A., Roeters, A., & Baxter, J. (2020). Gender differences in the quality of leisure: A cross-national comparison. Community, Work & Family, 23(4), 367-38