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March 14, 2001

This study is a real piece of work

Andrew Coyne
National Post

The headlines left little room for doubt. "Women still work longer than men for less income," blared the National Post. "Women still working more for less," agreed The Ottawa Citizen, tersely.

In fact, the Citizen story elaborated, women are doing "a lot more work for a lot less money." How much less? According to the Post, "women's work is still only worth about two-thirds of men's work." And how much work is a lot more? The Globe and Mail went Page 1: "Women outwork men by two weeks every year."

The stories were based on a study released Monday by the federal Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, Hedy Fry; the study, in turn, was based on a Statistics Canada survey on the "Time Use of Canadians in 1998." So we're dealing with reports of a report of a report, for starters. Ring, little alarm bells, ring.

Onward. Do the data show that women work more for less? That women's work is worth two-thirds of men's? In a word: No.

Let's take the "work gap" first. The figures quoted aggregate both paid work and what used to be known as household chores but are now referred to as "unpaid work." According to the Status of Women report, it amounts to 15 minutes a day: 7.8 hours for women, versus 7.5 hours of men. In the course of a year, 15 minutes a day does indeed add up to two weeks, which sounds like a lot -- certainly more than 3%, which is the actual size of the gap.

There's room for doubt even then. The numbers are drawn from survey data, which are notoriously unreliable: Could you state how many hours you worked yesterday, within 15 minutes? And, bizarrely, StatsCan's numbers don't say what Status of Women says they say. In fact, they don't show any gap at all, assigning men and women 7.8 hours apiece. To be sure, women did more unpaid labour, about 90 minutes more a day, but the figures were just the reverse for paid work. Indeed, men aged 35-44 worked more total hours, housework included, than women in the same age group, as did men aged 45-54.

The only age group in which men worked significantly less than women was the 15-24 category. Ms. Fry declared this was because "the guys" were out playing hockey. "They're going out with their buddies and leaving the woman at home to do all the work."

But wait a minute. The figures are for all men and women, single, married, or cohabitating. In the 15-24 age group, that means mostly singles. And young, single men, as we know, don't do any housework at all. They're not leaving it to the womenfolk. They're leaving it for the next tenant.

So much for the "women work more" thesis. What about the two-thirds pay? Using data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, Status of Women calculates that, indeed, women's after-tax income was 63% of men's in 1998, up from 52% in 1986. But that's for all income earned, no matter how many hours it took to earn it. As the data show, men spend many more hours in paid employment than women do. Roughly one in five women work part-time; only 5% of men do. Women aren't paid less for more work; they're paid less for less work. (Even the more often-quoted 73% estimate of the wage gap, which ostensibly compares like with like, forgets that men working full-time put in, on average, 11% more hours than women working full-time.)

Ah, say the Status of Women folk, that's only because of all the "unpaid work" women are doing. Factor that in and the wage gap returns. But it isn't unpaid, or not in many households: In return for being spared the chores, the partner who works outside the home shares his income with the other. If we are going to add up all hours worked, in the home or out, we should also tot up all wages paid, explicitly or implicitly.

Nor is unpaid work necessarily work. StatsCan defines it as anything done in-house that could have been purchased on the market -- a definition that would include time spent having sex, since there are people who will do that for pay, too. All sorts of things that used to be made in the home are now purchased from others: clothes, furniture, etc. If people still elect to do some things for themselves, they must have a reason: because it is not worth it to hire someone, or because they like doing it.

About one-quarter of the four hours a day women say they spend on household chores, for example, is devoted to shopping -- which women also tell pollsters is one of their favourite leisure activities. Gardening, cooking, creating stunning window treatments: Where does the pastime stop and work begin? What about volunteering -- also classed as unpaid work? If people are willing to do something for free, for the pleasure it gives them, why should it be counted as if they weren't?

For that matter, should all work be counted the same? Shouldn't we adjust for intensity of effort? Somebody has to be watching all those day-time soaps.

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