Pew Study on Parental Labor

A recent Pew survey — Parents’ Time with Kids More Rewarding Than Paid Work — and More Exhausting (also available as a PDF) — provides interesting reading. We learn that a similar percentage of parents consider child care (62%) and leisure activities activities (59%) very meaningful.[1] We also learn that mothers spend 78.2 hours per week and fathers 85.3 hours per week contributing to family life.[2] Excluding leisure, mothers spend 53.7 hours per week maintaining the family and fathers 57.8. Buried in those numbers as I have listed them are, of course, considerable differences in how mothers and fathers spend those hours.

I worry about how the categories the Pew uses (presumably just borrowing those categories from the American Time Use Survey) reinforces gender stereotypes and shapes the results and how the Pew study’s reporting on the results further underscores those stereotypes. For example, why are inside tasks such as cleaning and laundry examples of “cleaning” while outside tasks like lawn and garden considered “repair”? Why do some regularly occurring “Housework” tasks get cordoned off into different stereotypically gendered categories? Both the classification’s label and the examples reflect and reinforce gender roles. Contrast:

  • Cleaning: Laundry, cleaning
  • Repair: Interior and exterior maintenance, lawn, gardens, vehicles

Why not consider cleaning, laundry, lawn, garden, shoveling snow, raking leaves, etc. all under a single heading “Cleaning”? Those are all tasks that occur on a regular basis and reflect the overall “cleanliness” of a house. The overall time spent on “Housework” would not change, but how would our perception of that work begin to change if the categories used did not seem, well, so retrograde.

The report unhelpfully slides between numbers with decimals and inconsistently rounded off numbers.[3] Let’s look at how the report rounds off some numbers:

  • 40.5 becomes 40 when comparing the number of hours fathers work to the 23 (22.8) hours mothers work.
  • 40.5 later becomes 41 when reporting on the “biggest share of [fathers’] non-sleeping hours.”
  • 27.5 becomes 28 when reporting fathers’ leisure time.
  • 24.5 becomes 24 when reporting mothers’ leisure time.
  • 13.5 becomes 14 when reporting the hours mothers spend on child care.

It is unclear what rounding rule the report uses here to deal with x.5 cases.[4] Clearly it wasn’t the simple round up, otherwise 24.5 wouldn’t have become 24. Equally clearly, it wasn’t the round to the even number, otherwise 40.5 wouldn’t have become 41. And most disturbingly, rounding was not consistently applied even to the same number, otherwise 40.5 wouldn’t have become both 40 and 41.

I don’t really understand why any of the numbers were rounded off. Later in the report, values are frequently reported with one decimal place.[5] For example, we read that mothers “spend 5.2 hours per week tending to children’s physical needs, about 2.6 times as much as what fathers spend in these activities (two hours per week).” If decimals were important, presumably we would have read that fathers spend 2.0 hours per week. Precision was not, apparently, the goal, otherwise we would not read that 5.2 hours is “about 2.6 times” [my emphasis] 2.0 hours. We would read that 5.2 hours is 2.6 times 2.0 hours. In other cases, the numbers are simply translated into prose, e.g., 7.1 becomes “about seven hours per week,” which is “more than three times as much as … two hours per week.”

Unsurprisingly, the Pew’s study has already attracted attention that interprets it in gender normative ways: Mom’s are tired, but maybe they want it that way. The Pew study adds little new to the discussion about distribution of family and parental labor, responsibilities, and self-imposed tasks. Unfortunately, but adding little to that discussion, the report simultaneously reflects and reinforces assumptions about parental labor and responsibilities. I would like to read a study that struggled to upend the easy gendered categories both in how it framed the questions and categories and how it summarized the results. And I would like to see reporting on that study that didn’t fall into normative assumptions about mothers’ and fathers’ strengths and weaknesses.

  1. It is unclear what if any overlap there is between child care and leisure activities. Although an appendix lists examples of both activities, the appendix does not indicate if parents at least for the purposes of this survey thought of “TV and other social” or “Sports” as exclusively adult/parent activities. While I assume I could dig through the American Time Use Survey to learn the details, I would have liked the Pew study to state explicitly whether or not leisure activities included children.  ↩

  2. I consider leisure an important facet of maintaining the family life. I know that I am a better parent when I have enjoyed some leisure time, though rarely does that include many of the activities the survey lists as examples. And the Mother is happier when She has been given Her time alone.  ↩

  3. Remnants of an early training in quantitative methods made me, perhaps, particularly sensitive to this aspect of the report. The use of precise values and rounded off numbers might be nothing more than laziness or sloppiness. Whatever the reason, it colors how we read the report. Those numbers undergird some of the report’s generalizations and serve important rhetorical functions. Maybe I’m just a nitpick.  ↩

  4. There are various ways to deal with the “tie-breaking” cases.  ↩

  5. One explanation could be significant figures. But given the lack of any recognition that rounding off should be applied consistently and according to some rule, I doubt significant figures played any role in report.  ↩