Q&A: How data from time use surveys can tackle inequality

Panel speakers for the session "Gender Data Impact Stories: From Data to Action" at the United Nations World Data Forum, where Marjo Bruun shared Finland's story of time use survey data. Photo by: Kiara Worth / IISD

In 2013, a legislative reform in Finland meant fathers could receive paternity allowance for up to 54 working days. In 2001, the Finnish government introduced a tax reduction for domestic costs aimed at increasing the employment rate. And in 1996, parents of children under school age were given the right to daycare, again to encourage parents to join the workforce. These are just some of the country’s labor policies thought to have been influenced by the data gathered from time use surveys.

A time use survey is simply a survey that analyzes how people spend their time — working, doing household chores, caring for others, etc. — and makes comparisons between gender and age cohorts. Though the examples above are just some ways that data can be used to provide a basis for policy interventions and ignite positive change to tackle labor disparities between men and women, there are many opportunities for other such positive changes globally, claims Marjo Bruun, director-general of Statistics Finland — the country’s national statistical organization.

“It's useful information and if you want to talk about gender issues, it does bring out the differences in the way time is spent. It’s quite revealing,” Bruun said, citing current imbalances among higher education attendance between women and men in Finland.

But what impact can this data have and how can all countries take lessons learned from Finland around the implementation of time use surveys to address inequality?

Sitting down with Devex, Bruun talked us through Finland’s experience and how to collect and employ time use data to address gender imbalances.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What impact can time use data have?

Gender inequality is very important in Finland, and time use survey data is one part of monitoring that. It’s not the only thing that is used, but we have lots of data about people, how much they work, their training and education, and then everything is compared. Such surveys fill in gaps around employment statistics, since they enable accurate measurement of the amount and contract duration of paid work. They also give information on volunteer work and informal employment, which are not covered by labor force surveys conducted by countries and international organizations, and show the time use of the unemployed and other people not currently in education, employment, or training.

For example, in the early 1990s when there was urbanization going on in Finland and people were moving more to the cities, there was a feeling that more women than men were leaving the countryside. We combined the time use survey data from the ‘70s and ‘80s and combined it with the population data — this gives you information on the region the person is living in, whether it’s urban or countryside.

“Like in developed countries, time use surveys in developing countries help make the hidden work of women and men visible.”

— Marjo Bruun, director-general, Statistics Finland

You could see in this time span that the way men spent their time had changed in the countryside, but was more or less the same as men in the cities; they spent the same time working, maybe more, but they had free time and social events. But in the country, women worked longer hours, both at work and in the household, so it was quite understandable that they wanted to leave the countryside. A lot of incentives were then taken to activate the women socially in the countryside to give them their own disposable income. This happened because of the social pressure as a result of the publicity from the survey.

Like in developed countries, time use surveys in developing countries help make the hidden work of women and men visible. For example, care of children and the elderly is often done at home and a time use survey can give information on how much time is used for the care work.

In collecting this data, what has Finland learned about gender differences, particularly as it relates to time use, the care burden, and participation in the formal economy?

Since we have over three decades of time use survey data, we can see the differences in gender and what is happening in time. We can see that, over time, household work is shared more, although men still continue to spend more time in gainful employment than women and they have more free time than women do. Indeed, women still also do the majority of domestic work.

We also see that the work that is done at home is evening out, both in terms of the type of work and how much time is spent, but still, women do more than men.

What advice would you give authorities in low- and middle-income countries around collecting and using data from time use surveys as a starting point for positive change around equality?

Time use surveys get information that cannot be otherwise be obtained, but they can be costly. In Finland, we also have other statistical organizations interested in how people spend their time, so the financing comes from several sources.

Gender Data Impact Call for Stories

This is one of the stories that was uncovered as part of the Gender Data Impact Call for Stories run by Data2X in partnership with Open Data Watch and Devex this year.

This project sought to identify stories where the use of gender data led to a positive impact in countries around the world; something that is undoubtedly true for women and men in Finland.

To find out more about how time use data has impacted women’s lives, click here.

I’d advise that surveys are harmonized nationally, regionally, internationally to ensure an ability to compare accurately.

I’d also recommend involving donors and the main data users in the planning phase of the survey to ensure the use of the results. This is one of the reasons why time use survey data in Finland has improved labor policies and encouraged gender equality — because policymakers were brought into the conversation from the start. The results of the survey should then be disseminated actively and widely. Usually, this is not difficult, because of the great interest of the media toward time use.

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