The sexism of leisure time

  • Living
  • Saturday, 15 Mar 2014

Women are said to enjoy much more leisure time than ever before. But is it quality relaxation or just bits of time snatched in between never-ending chores?

BRITISH women are “queens of leisure”, luxuriating for five and a half hours a day in the soul-refreshing time that ancient Greeks said was the point of a good life, according to new data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

It ranked British women well ahead of women in the supposed “cafe societies” of France, Italy, Portugal and Spain for the amount of time they spend idling away in an idyllic haze.

A few years ago John Robinson, a time-use researcher, told me that I, a stressed, guilty, hyper-parenting, obsessively tidying working mother of two, enjoyed 30 hours of leisure a week – more than women in the 1960s when fewer worked outside of the home. When I told him he was out of his mind, he challenged me to keep a time diary.

When I finally managed to bring Robinson my time diaries he found 27 hours of what he called leisure and I called scraps. Ten minutes here. Fifteen minutes there. Listening to the radio news for 20 minutes while I tried to get out of bed. Even sitting in my broken-down car waiting for a tow truck. All leisure.

None of these moments of what I came to call “time confetti” matched the vision I have of leisure – guiltlessly reading a book for hours, going on a long hike, taking a snooze in a hammock on a beach. True leisure is something you choose. Not leftover or in-between time that happens to you.

The same OECD study found that British women, like most women around the world, are still doing about twice the housework and childcare as men. Women are also doing what psychologists call the heavy “mental labour” of keeping track of it all. All this means that women’s time is often contaminated: lost in worry and never fully present in the moment.

You may be on a picnic with your family and it may look like leisure, but on the inside it feels like mission control: you’re taking everyone’s emotional temperature, serving the food, cleaning up, while the tape loop of all the other stuff that needs to get done plays over and over in your head.

All this labour is exhausting. So what do we do? We turn on the television because we lack the energy for much else. The OECD and other organisations have found television is most people’s main leisure activity. But don’t let that fool you. Women typically multitask in front of the box, folding laundry and paying bills.

And that brings me to the most important point: women have never had a culture of leisure. Our time has always been fragmented. And women the world over feel they don’t deserve leisure, they must instead earn it by getting to the end of a To Do list – which of course never ends.

In his 1899 Theory Of The Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen dispenses with women on page two, as part of the class that has always been responsible for doing the drudge work. Only higher-status men had long stretches of uninterrupted time not only to chill, but to create art, invent and think the great thoughts that became the foundations for civilisation.

How can women reclaim leisure? Men have to share the load at home. To do that, workplace cultures stuck in the 1950s that expect 24/7 devotion have to change. And women have to pause in the swirling overwhelm, think about what would – like the Greeks said – refresh their souls and bring them joy. And then women have to give themselves the permission to have leisure time. We do, indeed, deserve it. — Guardian News & Media

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The sexism of leisure time


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