John FitzGerald: Gender, lifestyle and sociocultural economics

French eat and sleep more while women in Ireland do 3.5 hours more unpaid work a day

Over years of working in partnership with economists from other countries, I have noticed that French colleagues were always very reluctant to conduct any business over a meal, being firmly of the view that business and dining should be kept separate. This national preference is also clearly shown in a 2007 time-use study conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute*, which showed that French people, on average, spend three hours a day on meals compared to two hours in Sweden and Britain and only one hour and 50 minutes in Ireland.

Clearly, for French families sharing food and conversation around the dining table plays an important social role.

These differences in attitudes to food extend across the Atlantic. Europeans spend more time on food preparation than Americans. In another study, a US economist argued that this was because relative prices matter, and it was relatively cheaper to eat out in the US, the home of McDonald’s.

Leading French economist Esther Duflo, of MIT, has put the counter-argument to this study: that Europeans value the creative aspect of cooking, and prefer home-cooked to fast food. She argued that it is transatlantic differences in preferences, and not just price, that account for the greater time Europeans spend on food preparation, childcare and other domestic work.


The ESRI study found other cross-national differences in time use. While eight hours sleep is the usual standard across Europe, the French enjoy their lie-ins and spend about 40 minutes more in bed.

But the most striking feature of the ESRI time-use study is the difference between men and women in how their time is allocated. This holds true for all countries, with men spending more time in paid employment, and women more time on domestic tasks.

Childcare issues

When paid and unpaid work is added together, the total work done by men and women on weekdays is very similar. However, at weekends women had less free time than men because of the higher burden of their unpaid work, probably related to childcare.

Surprisingly, there was no additional effect on unpaid work for lone parents on weekdays or weekends.

In Ireland, it is dual-earner couples who work hardest, with more time spent on paid and unpaid work, and less leisure time than other households. This reflects the complexity of juggling family life with children and paid employment. As the ESRI study states, “there may be trade-offs between increased employment and associated economic wealth, and free time”.

While conventional measures of national output, such as gross domestic product (GDP), put a value on the economic output generated by those in paid work, they take no account of the hugely valuable task of unpaid care and maintaining a household.

Every household makes choices, not just based on how much they will earn, but also taking account of their enjoyment from some, but certainly not all, of the tasks which they undertake at home. Mechanisation of household chores like laundry has freed up women to live fuller lives than their great grandmothers, as Hans Rosling’s 2010 TED talk on the magic washing machine so entertainingly shows.

Gender time use

The choices which families make on time use are not driven by purely economic considerations. However, the evidence does suggest that, if appropriate childcare arrangements were available, women would choose to spend some more time in paid employment.

There are some interesting differences between countries in gender time use. Men in Ireland spend 20 minutes less per day working in the home on childcare, cooking and other chores than men in other EU countries. By contrast, women in Ireland spent much more time on unpaid work in the home than their European counterparts: 5.5 hours a day compared to 4.25 in France and 3.5 in Sweden.

Better public childcare provision in France, and especially Sweden, is likely to be a key explanation.

The uneven burden of unpaid work undertaken by women compared to men is particularly striking for Ireland. Women do 3.5 hours more unpaid work a day compared to men in Ireland, whereas the gap in France is only two hours and just over one hour in Sweden.

It is not clear how this balance can be rapidly redressed. Part of the solution undoubtedly lies with increased public provision of childcare, but other solutions may be needed to produce such a change in culture.

Maybe Ireland should learn from France and Sweden: sleep more, spend more time at the dinner table, and share household tasks more evenly, facilitated by enhanced provision of public childcare.

* Work Rich, Time Poor? Time-Use of Women and Men in Ireland by Frances McGinnity and Helen Russell – ESRI 2007