Time-use agency: A new measure of women’s empowerment


by Sarah Eissler, Jessica Heckert, Emily Myers, Greg Seymour, Sheela Sinharoy, Kathryn M. Yount, and Jessica Wallach | July 2, 2021

Substantial gender gaps in time spent on unpaid domestic and care work can be found in every region of the world, and have expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic. These are due, in large part, to rigid gender norms that place responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work disproportionately on women. As a result, women are more likely than men to be time poor—less able to make unconstrained choices about how to allocate their time.

Quantitative measures of time use are crucial to tracking progress toward gender equality. These can be based on, for example, individuals’ recollection of time spent on activities over the last 24 hours, or on survey questions (“On a typical day, how much time do you spend caring for children?”). But such approaches can fail to capture the motivations behind time-use decisions.

In research on women’s empowerment, time use is typically viewed either as a resource used in pursuit of personal goals or as an outcome that a policy or intervention is designed to improve. Empowerment is seen as a function of the amount of time spent on different types of activities. For example, the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) and project-level WEAI (pro-WEAI) include indicators related to an individual’s workload, which define someone as less empowered if they spend more than 10.5 hours/day on paid and unpaid work.

While such approaches are useful for identifying time poverty, they reveal little about the link between time poverty and empowerment. Some women who work long hours each day might do so because of a lack of agency, while others do so because of enhanced agency—because they are internally driven (e.g., passion for work, self-fulfillment) rather than constrained by external pressures (e.g., social expectations, care responsibilities, subsistence motives). In reality, most women’s motivations are likely mixed. The subtleties in the decisions and tradeoffs women make around time use are important. Thus, generalizations that categorize those with heavy time burdens as disempowered can mask key aspects of agency.

To address these issues, we propose a new concept, “time-use agency,” defined as: “The confidence and ability to make and act upon strategic choices about how to allocate one's time.” This concept, drawing together separate strands of research on time use and women’s agency, is outlined in a new publication, “Exploring Gendered Experiences of Time-Use Agency in Benin, Malawi, and Nigeria as a New Concept to Measure Women’s Empowerment.”

Drawing from 92 interviews conducted with women and men, all working-aged adults, in 2019 and 2020 (prior to any COVID-19 lockdowns), we examine social norms around time use and participants’ decision-making about allocating their time. The interviews were part of mixed-method evaluations for the Agricultural Technical Vocational Educational and Training for Women (ATVET4Women) program in Benin and Malawi and the Value Chain Development Program (VCDP) in Nigeria. In all three settings, the interviews took place after most project activities had ended. ATVET4Women offered business skill development, leadership training, and information about the cultivation and processing of rice, soy, chicken, and compost in Benin and aquaculture, mango, pineapple, and vegetables in Malawi to women and some men who were already active in these value chains at the time the programs started. The VCDP project in Nigeria was a gender-sensitive rural development project that provided technical training, inputs, and access to credit to farmer organizations in the rice and cassava sectors.

Our findings reveal some of the gendered barriers—often rooted in gendered expectations—prevent women from acting on new economic opportunities. These are not monolithic; expectations around how men and women spend their time differed by country and even by community. For example, important differences in time-use agency emerged between polygynous and monogamous households. Wives in polygynous households—especially wives other than the first wife—were less likely than wives in monogamous households to be consulted in decisions around their spouses’ time use.

Conflicts around time use—for instance, disagreeing about who should work as hired labor, or planting crops—were usually resolved by deferring to the husband’s preference, but the ways in which men and women discussed or mitigated potential conflicts varied. Many of the women interviewed could easily adjust their schedules for daily tasks but needed to navigate relationships with their husbands to be able to attend trainings or take on new paid work. These results align with previous findings that women consistently have more control over small rather than large decisions about their time use.

While most women had at least some control over how and when to spend their time on childcare and other gendered household tasks, men tended to have more control over women’s tasks that fell outside of such expectations. Across study sites, some women said that they could decide how they spend their time as long as they completed their gendered obligations over the course of the day. In Benin, many women indicated that, if they prioritized housework and childcare and demonstrated respect for their husbands, they were “allowed” more control over their time and could engage in paid work activities that interested them.

While traditional time-use survey methods can tell us how women’s time use changes, they can’t tell us why these changes occur (or do not occur). Our findings show that more nuanced measures of time-use agency that capture women’s motivations and preferences can help fill these gaps. This is especially true for projects that stand to directly impact women’s labor, such as those focused on income-generating activities or labor-saving technologies.

As a next step, we have begun to develop and to validate a survey instrument to measure individual time-use agency. It will be suited for use in household surveys, either alongside existing time-use instruments or as a replacement, depending on the aims of the research. The time-use agency module is more concise and should save time for respondents compared to traditional time-use survey methods, which can be cognitively taxing and time consuming to complete. The time-use agency module can also focus its questions in general terms or for a calendar year, which can mitigate seasonality bias that occurs from collecting time-use data during different agricultural seasons with different labor burdens.

To learn more about this important new concept for measuring empowerment, please read the full publication and look for follow-up to this post later in 2021, in which we’ll discuss the development and validation of the time-use agency survey module.

Sarah Eissler is an Independent Consultant; Jessica Heckert and Greg Seymour are Research Fellows at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI); Emily Myers is Research Analyst at IFPRI; Sheela Sinharoy is Research Assistant Professor at Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University; Kathryn M. Yount is Asa Griggs Candler Chair of Global Health and Professor of Global Health and Sociology at Emory University; Jessica Wallach is an IFPRI Communications Intern and a Master’s student in International Agricultural Development at the University of California, Davis.

This work was supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Deutsche Gesellschaft für lnternationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the African Union Development Agency-New Partnership for Africa’s Development (AUDA-NEPAD), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH).

This story is part of the EnGendering Data blog which serves as a forum for researchers, policymakers, and development practitioners to pose questions, engage in discussions, and share resources about promising practices in collecting and analyzing sex-disaggregated data on agriculture and food security. If you are interested in writing for EnGendering Data, please contact the blog editor, Dr. Katrina Kosec.

Photo by Tim Cronin/CIFOR