Toronto Sun

March 15, 2001

Women's work is never done

By LINDA WILLIAMSON -- Toronto Sun

If you have time to read this column, you must be a man.

Either that, or the latest report out of Status of Women Canada is playing us for all our tax dollars are worth.

You know the study - Economic Gender Equality Indicators 2000 - the one most news reports offered up in exasperated tones this week. "Women still work more than men," most of them insisted, adding, "for a lot less pay."

The political spin was predictable. Liberal Status of Women Minister Hedy Fry trumpeted the "surprising disparity" between men and women aged 15-24 - when paid and unpaid "work" (read, household chores) are counted, the young women reportedly worked 18% more than the men. And on average, women of all ages worked 15 minutes a day more than men did, for a total of two weeks' more work per year!

NDP Leader Alexa McDonough, whose inability to resist an anti-testosterone rant probably explains her flagging popularity with auto workers and others, quipped: "What else is new? My only surprise is that it's not more."

Well, frankly, that is the surprise. It's not more. It's all in how you crunch the figures. More on that in a moment.

McDonough and her sisters can be forgiven their cranky line, of course, because it rings true to any one of us who still shoulders more than half the cooking and housecleaning (or, in my case, the pre-cleaning that must be done before the paid cleaners arrive, a task my husband finds incomprehensible). After all, we are bombarded with this kind of study all the time.

Just last week, an Ipsos-Reid poll revealed that 70% of Canadian women would prefer a good night's sleep to a good night of sex. Of course - we're all working too hard! (For men, who likely recognized that one can lead to the other, only 44% opted for sleep as their first choice.)

And the housework gap has been well known for years. My favourite study on the subject is the U.S. one by Brown University two years ago, in which women claimed to do 70% of the chores, while their husbands took credit for 36.7%. That adds up to 106.7%, or an extra 6.7%, which I figure means picky wives are redoing a lot of the chores their hubbies already did.

But the truth is never so simple. In fact, while the total work disparity between males and females 15-24 might be hard for some people to fathom (feminists, say, or any parent of teenagers of either gender), that age group is actually closer than any other to achieving equality in hours of paid work.

Much more intriguing is the finding that, between the ages of 25 and 55, men and women are doing almost exactly the same amount of work, when paid and unpaid jobs are calculated. In fact, "women aged 45 to 54 experience near equity," the report says. So baby boomer feminists were on to something after all! Middle-aged men are enlightened! Who'da thunk it?

ONE GAP THAT'S NARROWING

Why didn't that finding make the news? Or this one: although full-time working mothers on average still spend more time caring for their children than full-time working dads, that gap is narrowing. In homes where the mom is the primary earner (still a rarity, mind you), she spends about 107 minutes with the kids; where dad's the primary earner, he spends 85 minutes with them. That's not too big a gap.

Overall, of course, it's true that women tend to do less paid work than men do, mostly because they are still the ones more likely to stay home and raise children, and/or work part-time. That in turn accounts for the so-called "wage gap," which this study reports in terms of a woman earning just 63c for every dollar a man earns.

But as every woman who works alongside men today knows, this figure means little in the real world. No one is saying women earn lower salaries than men for doing the same jobs. What it means, simply, is men get more money because they do more paid work. Indeed, if there were such a thing as a Status of Men ministry, the headline might have said: "Men are still putting in more hours on the job than women."

Such are the pitfalls of gender-gap reporting. Sometimes these reports simply reinforce what we believe to be true (e.g., men are slobs), and sometimes we ignore what they really say (e.g., the troubling results of Ontario's Grade 10 literacy test, which showed boys faring much worse than girls province-wide ... where's the outcry over that?).

I suppose they can be useful in fuelling a spirited debate on the value of all types of work - say, the value of the work that goes into these studies. Then again, who has the time?


Linda Williamson is the Toronto Sun senior associate editor. She can be reached by e-mail at linda.williamson@tor.sunpub.com.
Letters to the editor should be sent to editor@sunpub.com.

Copyright © 2001, Canoe Limited Partnership.