March 8th marks ‘International Women’s Day’, a day which serves as a call to action to progress gender equality around the world. This year’s theme – Better the balance, better the world (#BalanceForBetter), draws attention to the need for greater gender balance in all dimensions of society and community, including within work and business, wealth, government, and media and sports coverage.
At a more individual level how men and women experience the notion of ‘balance’ in their daily activities, roles and routines – can have a powerful impact on wellbeing and mental health. This is especially true within a shared household or family unit. The idea of a healthy and balanced lifestyle has become a standard tenet of both physical and mental health promotion, but how might gender impact our attainment of this?
Here we take a look at some of the ways gender imbalances can affect the balance we experience in daily life, our mental health as individuals, and the health of community and society at large.
Balance in daily life
A 2007 report on a national time-use study of 585 households found that there is a significant difference in how unpaid work in the home is shared between men and women. The study found that while 71% of men living in family household did no meal preparation and 81% did no cleaning activities during the weekdays, more than 66% of women in these households spent time on these activities both during the week and at the weekend. A discrepancy in how housework was shared between men and women in the household persisted even where both were in full-time employment.
Emotional labour describes those ‘invisible’ tasks that are often involved in managing a household and family’s daily life. It can include tasks such as maintaining links and communications with children’s teachers, remembering and organising for family birthdays, and, significantly, being the person most attentive to a child’s emotional needs. A recent American study which surveyed 393 women with children, and who were also in a committed relationship, found women were responsible for the majority of emotional labour in their homes. For example, nine out of ten women felt solely responsible for organising their family’s schedules. Worryingly the study found that such imbalances in shared responsibilities were negatively associated with women’s mental health, in particular feelings of emptiness, as well as low satisfaction levels with life overall.
Free time and leisure
A key way to manage stress levels, balance multiple demands in our lives, and generally support our mental health, is to enjoy time for restorative activities, rest and leisure. Both of the studies cited here, noted an impact on women’s free time especially, where there was an imbalance in the time spent on housework, childcare or emotional labour. Thus women in the Irish time-use study for example, spent less time on leisure and recreation at the weekends than their male peers in the study.
Caregiving and men’s mental health
Women tend to complete the majority of caregiving activities in daily life internationally, and improved childcare provision and carer supports have been found to support participation in employment outside the home amongst other benefits for women. However more recently attention is being drawn to the link between men’s quality of life and health, and greater participation in caring roles. The World Health Organisation has highlighted the value of caregiving for men’s mental health in recent social media campaigns, highlighting positive effects including fewer mental health problems, lower consumption of alcohol and drugs, and stronger emotional connection to partners and children. Greater balance within traditionally gendered roles and activities, will likely then yield mental health benefits for both men and women.
Where countries have good childcare provision and supports, less imbalance between men and women as regards their lifestyles has been highlighted. At a broader level, international studies show a correlation between the status of women and a nation’s economic status and quality of life – greater gender balance benefits society as a whole. Research by the Centre for Partnership Studies has found that gender equality was a better predictor of a nation’s quality of life than Gross Domestic Product (GDP). There is a converse association with autocratic and fundamentalist societies or groups, such as neo-nazis or fundamentalist religions, where traditional gender roles are encouraged and protected and domestic violence rates are high. At this time in history, issues of gender balance arguably thus require even closer attention and vigilance to ensure just and equitable societies.
At an individual level, there are lots of ways we can strive for greater balance in daily life to support our mental health – planning breaks away, incorporating self-care into our routines, taking up a new weekly interest, learning to manage our time more effectively. Tackling imbalances linked to gender inequity is frustratingly more complicated, but something that can be achieved and will be for the benefit of all. Better the balance, better the world indeed, but also better the health. #IWD2019
McGinnity, F. & Russell, H. (2007) Work rich, time poor? Time use of women and men in Ireland. Economic & Social Review, Vol 38, No. 3, Winter 2007, pp. 323-354
Luthar,S. & Ciciolla, L. (2019) Invisible Household Labor and Ramifications for Adjustment : Mothers as Captains of Households. Sex Roles, 22 January, 2019.
World Health Organisation (2018) Strategy on the health and well-being of men in the WHO European Region. Rome, Italy 17-20 September.
Eisler, R. (2014) Cultural Transformation : Building a Partnership World. Kosmos Quarterly, Spring/ Summer 2014.