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How Time Use Surveys Can Put a Value on Women’s Work

Mayra Buvinic, senior fellow at the U.N. Foundation, discusses how time use surveys can measure the value of women’s work and what the pathway to policy change looks like when it’s based on sound data.

Written by Jihii Jolly Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Unpaid work, such as collecting water, has traditionally been considered outside of activities that contribute to the economy. Through time use surveys, some institutions and governments are now trying to measure the social and economic benefits of that kind of work. Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

The movement to value unpaid care work, which falls almost exclusively to women, has an unlikely – but potentially powerful – ally in so-called time use surveys, according to Mayra Buvinic, senior fellow at the U.N. Foundation, who recently coauthored a report on time use and unpaid care work.

However, Buvinic said that while more researchers are realizing the potential of time use surveys to effectively measure unpaid care work, effective practices must be developed on how and why to use them.

Momentum generated by the global women’s movement and at U.N. meetings has turned global attention to discussions about women’s work and how to measure it. However, getting developing countries to assign value to women’s unpaid labor, which comprises 75 percent of unpaid care and domestic work worldwide, remains a challenge.

The first “time diaries” were used in Russia in the late 19th century to study the daily lives of peasant families. In the 1920s and 1930s, time use surveys – tools used by governments or private institutions to measure the amount of time people spend on various activities – were used by the BBC to decide when to schedule their broadcasts, and by agricultural extension agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture to plan service deliveries.

“Then there was just a lull, I think, a gap in time where nobody really paid much attention to time use surveys, and how people use their time,” Buvinic said.

In recent years, understanding of the potential for time use surveys to measure unpaid care work has grown. In 2013, for example, the International Conference of Labor Statisticians decided to begin measuring all types of work in labor force surveys, including unpaid household and care work.

The work that time use surveys focuses on “includes not only housework, but child care, elder care, and some sustenance work that has not been measured in traditional statistics,” said Buvinic.

The report, by Data2X, an initiative of the U.N. Foundation that focuses on gender data, reviews recent efforts to utilize time use surveys, and provides 18 country case studies on the impact they can have on policy.

Women’s Advancement Deeply spoke with Buvinic about the potential of time use surveys to put a value on unpaid care work.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What is the issue with measuring unpaid care and why has it been overlooked for so long?

Mayra Buvinic: Unpaid work has been considered outside of things that contribute to the economy, which is crazy. It’s an essential contribution to the well-being of societies, [and] it so happens that most of this work is done by women.

What is interesting is that as societies develop, a lot of this work is transferred from the non-market to the market economy and starts being measured and valued. The less developed the society, the less this unpaid work is transferred into the marketplace. I think that is partly why this whole issue of time use surveys and trying to measure this work has become something that people are paying attention to.

On one hand, gender [advocates] are saying they want to value women’s work, but on the other hand, a lot of these societies, particularly the more industrialized societies, are aging. And in aging societies, you have the problem of care, not only of children but of the aged.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: How can time use surveys influence policy?

Buvinic: The policy influence of data is a big issue and I think is something that people have not focused very much on in the past. There is really a disconnect between people who produce data and people who use data, and there should be a lot more communication between them. Time use surveys are one example of this.

We commissioned 18 studies and developed a framework of how the data moves into policy and what the mediating factors are. It’s very hard to find information trying to trace back how data influences policy; you have to talk to the right people.

Sometimes the connections are very obvious. The best case is of Uruguay. Latin America in general has been very good in terms of doing these types of surveys and they have become part of the essential toolbox that national statistical offices have. A university in Uruguay did the first time use survey in 2007, and then the government took over and the national statistical office expanded the surveys to the whole country instead of just an urban area. Over time, they added other diagnostic surveys and this has been the basis for a national care policy that Uruguay has just recently approved. This is a big thing.

In many other cases, the link is much more indirect. In Tanzania, I happened to talk to the national statistical office and found out that Tanzania had done a time use survey and it had been picked up by the media. There was a whole national conversation over the results, particularly one of the main results of the survey: that the average male citizen spends only four hours a day on productive paid work. This generated a huge discussion in society. Nothing ever happened in terms of a concrete policy, but clearly this had an impact.

When the influence of data on policy is indirect, it influences mindsets. It influences conversations. Those influences over time may be very important.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Which stakeholders, in your opinion, are most likely to be successful initiators of collecting time use data?

Buvinic: [In] Latin America, there is a very strong history of data collection and even more so in Europe. It was a combination of a very active women’s movement in the 1970s, U.N. regional offices that were very receptive who provided technical assistance, and national statistical offices that were strong. I think those were the three different players that led to time use surveys becoming a recognized, acknowledged tool.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: We’ve heard from feminists in developing countries that measuring unpaid care work is a very Western concept, so there’s pushback and lack of consensus on how to define it. How can that be addressed?

Buvinic: This is a big issue. Different cultures define what is work and what is leisure differently, and that is something that time use surveys have tried to tackle, because you have to classify activities, and the classification of activities varies within different cultures.

The way that countries and United Nations systems have dealt with it is to have classification systems for different regions. Latin America has a classification system, the Europeans have another one, and those classification systems respond to cultural definitions. What the U.N. statistical division is now trying to do is give some common measures that harmonize across those different cultural definitions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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