It's about time the ABS started counting how we spend our days - OpEd, Business Insider


Business Insider, 7 April 2018

Today is “No Housework Day”, a moment when we are supposed to stop washing dishes, refrain from doing laundry, and let the carpets gather dust.

If we all observed No Housework Day, who would benefit most? My guess is that it’d be women, who according to the 2006 Time Use Survey did most of the housework in Australia

Time use is a feminist issue. Women do the majority of unpaid caring for children and for older people. Women are more likely to volunteer, and do the majority of the housework.

Yet the Australian Bureau of Statistics hasn’t run a time use survey since 2006. As Shadow Minister for Women Tanya Plibersek puts it, we haven’t had a time use survey since the iPhone was invented.

That’s why we have announced that a Shorten Labor Government will fund the Australian Bureau of Statistics to conduct a time use survey in 2020 and 2027.

It will make it possible to learn more about how Australian families share parenting, who does the dishes, how people juggle paid work with informal care, and who suffers from social isolation.

Some questions are surprisingly basic. Adding up paid and unpaid work, do men or women do more? How many families are caught in a mid-life ‘squeeze’, caring for both their children and their parents?

Among separated parents, how does each partner use their time? When do busy people find time to exercise? Who’s getting the least sleep in Australia?

At their heart, time use surveys are pretty straightforward: ask a representative sample of people how they used their time over the course of the previous day.

Like diet diaries, they’re tricky to stick at, but insightful once they’re done.

When Australia conducted our first national time use survey in 1992, we were pioneers. International researchers such as University of Texas economist Daniel Hamermesh came to Australia to crunch the numbers and provide fresh insights about how we used our time.

Australian experts who analysed these early surveys included Patricia Apps, Michael Bittman and Lyn Craig used them to look at parenting, leisure time, and public policy.

Australia ran time use surveys in 1997 and 2006, but then we stopped. Meanwhile, regular time use surveys are a feature of most advanced nations, including New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Britain, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria and Japan.

Women’s organisations such as the National Foundation for Australian Women, Economic Security 4 Women, the Equality Rights Alliance and the Women’s Electoral Lobby have called for the government to measure how Australians use our time. But somehow, our nation hasn’t found the money to run a time use survey.

The reality is that while our national statisticians have been good at measuring how we spend our money, they haven’t been much good at measuring how we spend our time. As the Australian National University’s Marian Sawer points out, ‘it was feminists who campaigned for national time-use surveys to measure the volume and distribution of unpaid work’.

Sawer points out that if we only look at paid work, then we can get an unrealistic picture of the economy ‘a paradox summed up by the economist Arthur Pigou as the deleterious effect on the GDP of marrying one’s housekeeper’.

Journalist Annabel Crabb once described the information in the time use survey as a ‘source of deep geek-joy’.

She’s right, but the survey isn’t just for data nerds. That’s because how we use our time goes to the heart of feminist economics.

If you like the sound of a society where we’ve closed the gender pay gap and closed the superannuation wealth gap, then you should want a time use survey.

If you want a community with more equality in parenting and housework, then the time use survey can make a difference there too.

Better data doesn’t guarantee better outcomes, but shining a spotlight on problems is often the first step to solving them. It’s worth recognising how measurement can shape our future.

Facts help pave the road to gender equality.

Andrew Leigh is a member of the Australian House of Representatives. His website is This opinion piece was first published by Business Insider on Saturday, 7 April 2018.

Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.