Despite it’s commitment to equality, the Park Slope Food Coop is yet another place where differences in time use of men and women comes into play. (This isn’t the first time that the Park Slope Food Coop has come under scrutiny for not living up to its claims of equality among members in one of the richest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Every couple years the NYTimes likes to publish an expose, often from a scorned former member – a notable one being this piece on nannies covering the shifts of their employers.) Last week during my monthly shift at the Park Slope Food Coop, when I was working my and my husband’s office shifts, I was answering a member call about scheduling shifts for herself and her husband so that she could work both (like I was doing). The member sort of laughed at the notion of her husband working his own shift, and even also laughed at the idea of him doing something as basic shopping at the Food Coop himself for family consumption, since she is in clearly charge of the Food Coop business for the family. This is an all-too-common occurrence at the Park Slope Food Coop. From my unofficial survey, a large number of PSFC member families have the wife take on all the 2 hour and 45 minute shifts per adult family member, and they also do a majority of the grocery shopping. I get frustrated when I’m working my shift, helping women find a way for them to take on this responsibility for the benefit of the entire family, without trying to start the revolution. Ladies, your partners are part of your partnership, so have them be equal partners! It should not be so automatically acceptable for husbands to let their wives take on these domestic responsibilities without questioning the equality in this. Which means there can be a family decision to have one partner take on these duties, but it should be reached as a joint decision between equal partners.
But sadly, gender differences in time use (the somewhat obtuse term economists use to describe what we spend our time doing) is as old as gender variation itself. A basic amount of time is needed for survival activities, like eating or sleeping, and the rest of the time is discretionary time that we divide up between a myriad of possible activities, like leisure or market work. Gender differences in the amount of time spent on survival activities will effect the amount and predictability of discretionary time for men and women that can be spent on these other activities. This in turns effects the capacity of men and women to engage in different types of activities in their discretionary time that might require certain human capital investments (like requiring a certain level of education or job tenure) or fixed time costs (like traveling a distance to and from a job). For example, a lot of jobs require a fixed minimum amount of time for the worker to commit and sometimes without a predictable schedule, so if you are a family member who is primarily responsible for childcare, which can be unpredictable or variable when a child gets sick at school or when there are half days and vacation weeks, it may be difficult to engage in certain types of work – like being a lawyer trying to make partner or working a waged job in a food service or retail with little control over your schedule, unless you are able to pay for someone else to take on these domestic responsibilities as their paid work (which the lawyer can probably afford, but the McDonald’s worker less so).
The World Bank’s World Development Report on Gender, Development and Equality (that I cite all the time) describes the three systematic differences in gender time use that are similar across the world. First, women work more when we add all productive activities including housework, care work and market work. Second, women are responsible for housework and care work while men are more responsible for market work. And third, these differences are largely driven by family formation – so marriage increases women’s time use spent on housework and care work while it doesn’t change patterns of time use for men. Within societies, time use patterns change with wealth and education, but it never equalizes between genders. The patterns still exist, but just to a lesser degree. We can safely assume that many (but not all by any means) of the Park Slope Food Coop members are somewhat wealthy and well-educated, yet gender differences in time use with respect to time spent working member shifts and doing food shopping still tend to be the responsibility of wives more than husbands.
On one hand, as long as men tend to have higher earning power because of occupational segregation (men tend to work in higher paying professions) and outright pay discrimination, it could seem like it makes sense for women to use their relatively less valuable time (at least in earnings terms) on the productive yet unpaid work of being a member of the Food Coop and doing grocery shopping there. However, on the other hand, this becomes a self-perpetuating problem when women continue to be unable to work in male-dominated occupations that may require different time commitments and they continue to have lower earnings if they are taking on these domestic responsibilities that constrain their capacity to engage in market work. Furthermore, it maintains gendered assumptions about what type of time commitment employers can expect from male and female employees upon family formation or if they are already have a family. As I discuss in this post, married women get paid less then unmarried women because of pay discrimination against married women due to expectations that they may have discontinuous job tenure and other reasons. Despite legal statutes that protect workers from family status discrimination, it still happens and can be difficult to address.
While the Food Coop and its members tend to be unabashedly liberal, these gender differences still exist in day-to-day Food Coop life. These families who are probably donating to Planned Parenthood and encouraging their daughters to be engineers are also maintaining genderer structures within their family partnerships. And what bums me out on top of all this (and I should probably mention in the spirit of journalistic discretion) is that I do it too. My husband takes on the primary responsibility for market work, but it helps support my ability to do economics for low (research assistant) or no (doctoral candidate) earnings. This means that my schedule is more flexible and amenable to taking on regular domestic responsibilities like working both of our Food Coop shifts and doing the laundry, but truthfully it does detract from the amount of time I can spend on my economics work, which is a human capital investment for me and influencing my potential lifetime earnings. The sooner I complete my dissertation, the sooner he can take his turn as homemaker. But the longer I am the primary homemaker, the longer it takes me to get to that point. My (gendered) time use constraints are influencing my capacity to engage in market work just like to do everywhere from Brooklyn to Burkina Faso.
I am at least comforted by one other member worker who works in the membership office beside me who works his and his wife’s shifts because he is the primary caretaker for his two young children. He goes through the shift scheduling calendar, talking aloud about what activities his kids have on what days and whether on not he could make it in to the Food Coop to work at shift that ends at 3:30 if his daughter is out of soccer at 4 and the like. His brain is a calendar of childcare activities and duties and he reminds me every month for 2 hours and 45 minutes that these gendered differences in time use are social constructions and reversible, and that maybe I should consider developing my gender revolution “elevator pitch” to the other member wives I talk to that are struggling through their overweighted responsibility for their families’ Food Coop participation.