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Combined, Spanish women have 11.1 million hours less free time than men.
Combined, Spanish women have 11.1 million hours less free time than men.Cinta Arribas

The coveted luxury of doing nothing

Women face double shifts, a mental load and self-imposed demands, especially at work. Influenced by gender stereotypes, these expectations rob females of their free time

Rosario Torres says that she doesn’t even have time to think. She’s 52 years old; she has two adult daughters who still live with her along with two dogs. Her husband works “literally 12 hours” a day. She wonders “how anyone could believe” that she has “a single minute” to herself. She works two jobs as a cleaner and eats her meals en route from one to the other. She points out that she actually has “four [jobs]: two that pay me plus the household and the dogs.” Rosario doesn’t know what it’s like to have some time for herself, “let alone slack off.” What if she left some of her tasks for the next day? “What I do each day must be done every day because no one else will do it, and then I’d just be accumulating work until I can’t even sleep.”

Torres, who migrated to Spain from Ecuador over a decade ago, is just one of the many women who scarcely know what free time is. These women live by the maxim of not “putting off for tomorrow what you can do today.” Having free time to do nothing, or the luxury to leave something momentarily undone, depends on multiple socioeconomic, cultural and family variables, such as place of residence, employment, and whether one has a partner or children. Regardless, women tend to have less free time because they often work and act as caregivers. In 2019, the ClosinGap’s study, The Gender Gap’s Opportunity Cost in Free Time, estimated that women’s combined free time is 11.1 million hours less per day than men’s; Spanish women average just 1 hour and 37 minutes a day. That gap widens in rural areas, where women spend two hours and seven minutes more per day at home with their family than men do.

Laura Sagnier, an economist who specializes in big data and market intelligence, spent almost two years analyzing what Spanish women think and feel and what their lives are like (Las Mujeres Hoy [Women Today], Deusto, 2018). She says that women’s “free” time depended on their living situations, what she calls the multiple “fronts” of children, partners, and work.

Sagnier found that women’s spare time breaks down as follows: If women aren’t active on any of the “fronts, they have 4 hours and 18 minutes. If they live with only a partner, 5 hours and 6 minutes. If they only have children, 4 hours and 18 minutes. If they have just a paid job, 3 hours and 36 minutes. If they have both a partner and children, 3 hours and 18 minutes. If they have a partner and a paid job, 3 hours and 24 minutes. If they have a paid job and children, 2.5 hours. And if they have all three, 1 hour and 54 minutes.” Women pull double shifts that consist of both paid and unpaid (domestic) labor. They experience what’s called a mental load; that refers to the mental effort required by the daily organizational responsibilities women have at work and at home. They also place additional demands on themselves, especially at their jobs; such additional expectations are based on gendered stereotypes and the gender gap. That means they work harder to reach the same goals and demonstrate the same skills as men; sometimes, women also try to avoid burdening their colleagues with work that they can do themselves.

One of the vignettes from the book 'The mental load' (Lumen, 2018), by Emma Clit.
One of the vignettes from the book 'The mental load' (Lumen, 2018), by Emma Clit.

The way society is structured means that the time women have for themselves – if they have any – tends to count more than time spent serving others. That contributes to the fact that women suffer more stress, anxiety, depression and emotional problems – and take more medication to alleviate them – than men. As women age, the amount of medication they take compared to men increases. According to the 2017 National Health Survey (the most recent one), 34.1% of women over the age of 65 had taken tranquilizers in the previous two weeks, compared to 15.4% of men. “Some authors suggest that greater job instability plays a role. Others point to women’s greater willingness to talk about their symptoms and seek medical attention as compared to men,” María Isabel Santos Pérez, the author of a study on this subject, explained to EL PAÍS.

Quim Limonero, a professor of psychology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, points out that women tend to be more responsible and follow the rules, based on the influence of a culture that has traditionally charged them with more tasks and caregiving duties than men. “When caring for others leads [women] to abandon activities that they find rewarding, it can lead to a mental pathology, which tends to occur more often [among women than] among men, although it varies across societies,” he says.

Rosario is always “overwhelmed” and has been on a benzodiazepine prescription for seven years. Amelia, who is trying to work her way up in the legal profession and prefers not to give her last name for “professional reasons,” has been taking medication for three years, since she turned 31. The problems began 2 months after she joined the law firm where she currently works: “I couldn’t fall asleep and felt like I was dizzy all day.” She goes on to mention the pressure she feels: “In my world, if you’re young – and even more so if you’re a woman, obviously – you have to get with the program or they’ll eat you alive. I work crazy hours and I’m always available.” Sure, she doesn’t have children or other responsibilities, but she doesn’t have spare time either: “I’m almost never able to say, okay, I’m going to the movies or to dinner…” Work, more work, little to no free time, stress, anxiety, medication: The mere fact of being a woman is considered a risk factor for mental health problems. Several studies show that the likelihood of a woman suffering mental health problems is around 20%, almost twice as high as it is for a man. There are both biological and social reasons for that. As with many health problems, the interaction between the two determines whether or not certain disorders emerge.

Experts agreed that biological factors – driven by hormones – play an important role. As Marina Díaz Marsá, the president of the Madrid Psychiatry Society and director of Psychiatry at the San Carlos Hospital Clinic, noted, changes related to estrogens and the reproductive cycle occur in adolescence, postpartum, perimenopause and menopause.

But biology is compounded by social factors: “Between the age of 45 and 55, women face significant burdens in their lives, including greater demands at work as well as many physical and psychological changes. That’s why the problem is at its worst during this period, and women may suffer from depression more.” A 2019 Gaceta Sanitaria [Health Gazette] study concluded that gender, social class, family roles and work both within and outside the home and family environment can result in mental health inequalities. The caregiver role often contributes to such problems. “When a woman experiences anxiety, prolonged insomnia, irritability or guilt about going to work instead of taking care of her children, she doesn’t usually think that she has an illness. She typically goes to the psychiatrist or doctor later, waiting until the solution has become more difficult. There’s a tendency to ignore the fact that these are mental health problems, that they are illnesses that can be treated,” Ana González-Pinto, the president of the Spanish Foundation of Psychiatry and Mental Health, said in an interview with El Médico Interactivo [The Interactive Physician].

Being able to handle everything saps both time and health

However, women are more resilient when confronting such problems, says Javier Olivera Pueyo, a psychiatrist who oversees the Psychogeriatrics and Psychosomatic Medicine Program at Huesca’s San

Jorge University Hospital. For example, while women experience more mental health problems, they commit suicide much less often than men do. That resilience also manifests itself in the workplace, which isn’t always a good thing. A can-do attitude sometimes leads women to overload themselves with work. That burden is vitiated by gender stereotypes, but it’s harmful in both the short and long term. In a 2021 study conducted at the Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, in conjunction with the Harvard Business School, Grant Donnelly – one of the article’s co-authors –performed an experiment with his class. He assigned a paper worth 20% of the final grade to 103 undergraduate students in a business course. They were given a week to submit the essay but told that they could formally request a one-week extension by email. 36 percent of them asked for one; only 15% of them were women.

Afterward, another teacher – who didn’t know who had written the papers or requested an extension – graded the essays. The students who asked for an extension did better work. “[Women’s] concern about overburdening their team and manager with additional work was most predictive of their discomfort with asking for more time. The perceived burden and emotions such as shame and guilt explained why women were more uncomfortable with requesting an extension,” Donnelly explains via email.

In this case, the research shows that “women should ask for more time” when they need it. However, they generally don’t “because they are worried that they will be seen as incompetent or incapable of doing their work effectively; that concern is overblown. Requesting additional time reduces burnout and allows women to produce higher quality work.” The investigation consisted of nine studies with over 5,000 participants, both working adults and college students. It found that “the feeling of having too many things to do and not enough time to do them is a social epidemic that compromises productivity, physical health, and emotional well-being” for everyone. However, both this and “previous research shows that women experience proportionately greater temporal stressors than men.”

Women’s empathy is partly to blame for their “increased burnout and stress in the workplace.” They are more “relationship oriented” and “more concerned about being a burden on others, being good teammates; they tend to be more sensitive than men to other people’s needs. [Women] sacrifice their own needs to meet those of others, both voluntarily and in response to social pressure.” These are “very good characteristics to have as a colleague, but they undermine [women’s] well-being and performance.”

Amelia, the lawyer, recognizes that she should “try” to make more time “for my family, my friends; I have almost no social life until I go on vacation.” Rosario, however, just wants to have some time for herself. She’d like “to be able to be lazy from time to time... everyone could take care of themselves… I could take care of myself and even say, ‘I’ll do this tomorrow.’”

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