Spotlight on Canadians: Results from the General Social Survey
Changes in parents’ participation in domestic tasks and care for children from 1986 to 2015

by Patricia Houle, Martin Turcotte and Michael Wendt
Social and Aboriginal Statistics Division
Release date: June 1, 2017 Correction date: (if required)

The French version of this document corrected 3 data points with respect to time spent commuting.  The corrected data reads: “…an average of 17 minutes more on the commute than they had 30 years ago. Annually, this represents over 103 full hours, and 4 more …”

One of the main social revolutions of the past 40 years has certainly been the increased participation of women in the labour market and, consequently, their greater financial independence. Between 1976 and 2015, the employment rate of women aged between 25 and 54 years increased from 48.7% to 77.5%.Note 1

While more and more young women were completing postsecondary studies and entering the labour market, gender role values became increasingly equal around the world (Inglehart and Norris 2003; Gubernskaya 2010; Bolzendahl and Myers 2004).

These social and cultural changes had many effects on the household, particularly the sharing of household work and the division of parental responsibilities within families. First, the increased number of hours worked by women has in fact reduced the time they can spend on household work (Bittman et al. 2003). Next, on account of their increased personal income and greater contribution to family income, women have increased their negotiating power when it comes to sharing housework (Brines 1994).

Generally speaking, studies carried out in different countries have shown that men’s level of involvement in the domestic sphere is indeed higher in more recent generations (Marshall 2012; Bianchi 2011). Most data sources in Canada and elsewhere in the world nevertheless reveal that women continue to do more and sometimes considerably more than men, even when they work full-time (Craig and Mullan 2010; OECD 2011).

For these reasons, it is important to measure and track the situation. At what point is the gap between fathers and mothers in Canada, in terms of their participation in household work and child care, truly narrowed? More specifically, to what extent are fathers in 2015 more involved than their own fathers were 30 years ago?

To answer these questions, we turn to the most recent data from the 2015 General Social Survey (GSS) on Time Use, which are compared with data from the 1986 GSS on Time Use. Since respondents themselves report all the activities they did throughout the day, data from the time use surveys are recognized as being the most reliable to measure the level of participation and time spent on household work and child care.

In this study, fathers and mothers are parents who, at the time of the survey, were living with at least one of their children 17 of age or under and who were married or common-law spouses.Note 2

Increased participation of mothers in the labour market and of fathers in household work

Not surprisingly, time use data confirm the marked rise of the daily participation rate of women in the labour market. The percentage of mothers who had done paid work or looked for work, on an average day, increased from 36% in 1986 to 47% in 2015. In contrast, this proportion decreased for fathers, from 69% in 1986 to 64% in 2015.Note 3

These trends have translated into an increase in the proportion of all hours of paid work attributable to mothers. Specifically, in 2015, mothers accounted for 38% of the total hours of paid work done by parents, up from 29% in 1986 (Chart 1).

Chart 1 Percentage distribution of the total number of hours of paid work and unpaid household work done by parents, by sex, 1986 and 2015

Data table for Chart 1
Data table for Chart 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 1 Fathers and Mothers, calculated using percentage units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  Fathers Mothers
percentage
Paid work  
1986 71 29
2015 62 38
Household work  
1986 25 75
2015 39 61

And in this context, how did the participation rate of fathers and mothers in household work change?

During the course of an average day in 2015, the participation rate of mothers in household work remained higher than that of fathers (93% and 76%, respectively).Note 4 The difference between fathers and mothers was nevertheless smaller than before, mainly due to the increased participation of fathers in household work rather than a decrease in the participation of mothers.

Compared with 1986, the proportion of mothers who carried out household work remained unchanged (93% in 2015 and in 1986, see Table 1). Among fathers, however, participation in household work increased by 25 percentage points, from 51% in 1986 to 76% in 2015. Given these trends, the gap in the household work participation rate between fathers and mothers decreased by more than half during the period (from 42 percentage points to 17 percentage points).Note 5

In addition to being more likely to perform household work, fathers who did so spent more time on it than in the past. More specifically, in 2015, on days when they had performed household work, fathers had spent an average of 2.4 hours, compared with 2.0 hours in 1986. The opposite was true for women: among those who had performed household work, the average duration was 3.0 hours per day in 2015, compared with 3.4 hours per day in 1986.

Despite this trend towards a more equal distribution of tasks, fathers were far from having caught up with mothers. In 2015, only 39% of the total number of hours of housework done by parents could be attributed to fathers. In other words, mothers had accounted for nearly two-thirds of all the hours of household work done by Canadian parents in 2015 (61%) (Chart 1).

Men are increasingly in charge of preparing meals

Among the different types of household work, preparing meals is certainly the one with the highest increase in the level of involvement among fathers. The proportion of fathers who participated in meal preparation, over the course of a day, has practically doubled in the last three decades (from 29% in 1986 to 59% in 2015).

Among women, however, participation in meal preparation has declined slightly, from 86% to 81% for the same period. Given this contrast, the gap in the meal preparation rates by sex has dropped, from 57 percentage points in 1986 to 22 percentage points in 2015.

Trends in more equal sharing of responsibilities of cleaning, laundry and other indoor household work between fathers and mothers were similar, though less pronounced. Close to one out of three fathers performed these activities in 2015, compared with about one in five in 1986 (33% and 22%, respectively). Conversely, the daily participation rate of mothers declined from 83% in 1986 to 65% in 2015 (Table 1).

In other words, while only 12% of the total number of hours spent on cleaning and other indoor work was done by men in 1986, this proportion rose to 28% in 2015 (Chart 2). However, this increase in the participation of fathers— albeit significant—must be put in perspective once again, since mothers still were responsible for close to three-quarters (72%) of all the hours spent on laundry and cleaning in 2015.

Chart 2 Percentage distribution of the total number of hours devoted by parents to different types of activities, by sex, 1986 and 2015

Data table for Chart 2
Data table for Chart 2
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 2 Fathers and Mothers, calculated using percentage units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Fathers Mothers
percentage
Preparing meals
1986 14 86
2015 35 65
Cleaning, laundry and other housework
1986 12 88
2015 28 72
Outdoor work and repairs
1986 86 14Note E: Use with caution
2015 80 20Note E: Use with caution
Other unpaid household work
1986 45 55
2015 39 61
Child care
1986 28 72
2015 35 65
Purchases and services
1986 39 61
2015 41 59

Men continue to be responsible for outdoor work and repairs

According to many studies, household activities done on a less regular basis, such as repairs and outdoor work, are more often carried out by men than by women (Sullivan 2013). These trends are sometimes considered unequal where the division of household work is concerned. In fact, activities related to outdoor work and repairs of all sorts are believed to be less stressful and generally more pleasant—namely because they are optional and can be done according to a more flexible schedule (Coltrane 2000).

In Canada, men clearly continue to be responsible for outdoor work and repairs. In 2015, the probability that fathers had performed outdoor work or renovations during a day was almost three times higher than the probability observed for women (19% and 7%, respectively). GSS data indicate increased participation of mothers in this type of activity. For example, the proportion of mothers who had performed outdoor work or repairs during a day had increased, from 5% in 1986 to 7% in 2015. Among fathers, the proportion remained relatively unchanged during the period (edging up from 18% to 19%).

Despite this, 80% of the total number of hours spent on outdoor work and repairs by Canadian parents had been carried out by fathers.

Fathers are more involved with their children than before

According to various studies, time spent on child care is generally perceived by parents as pleasant, contrary to indoor household work like laundry and cleaning (see Sullivan 2013). During the survey, respondents were asked to rank, on a scale of -3 to +3, the extent to which various activities they had taken part in during the day were pleasant or unpleasant (-3 for the least pleasant, +3 for the most pleasant). In 2015, using this scale, it is not surprising to see that time devoted to child care was considered more pleasant than time spent on housework (Chart 3).

Chart 3 Parents’ ranking of how pleasant unpaid activities are on a scale of -3 to +3, 2015

Data table for Chart 3
Data table for Chart 3
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 3. The information is grouped by Type of unpaid work (appearing as row headers), Satisfaction scale from -3 to +3 and Confidence Interval, calculated using From and To units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Type of unpaid work Satisfaction scale from -3 to +3 Confidence Interval
From To
Outdoor household work 1.46 1.00 1.92
Indoor household work 1.27 1.02 1.51
Child care 1.74 1.55 1.93
Preparing meals 1.73 1.51 1.95

That being said, although activities related to parenting, such as playing, can be pleasant, there are many recurring, sometimes exhausting responsibilities. Studies usually show that mothers take on more responsibilities than fathers in this regard, even if fathers are more involved than they were in the past. (Raley et al. 2012; Yeung et al. 2001).

In Canada, the level of involvement of fathers with their children had increased significantly in comparison with 1986. More specifically, the percentage of fathers who had spent time providing help or care to children increased, from about 1 in 3 fathers on an average day in 1986 to 1 in 2 fathers in 2015.Note 6 Despite this increase in the participation of fathers, mothers continued to be more likely to provide help or care to their children (66% in 2015 and in 1986). Moreover, when mothers provided help and care to children, they spent more time doing so than fathers (respectively 2.6 hours and 1.9 hours per day on average).

The supervision of children, particularly those of a young age, is often done at the same time as other household or domestic tasks, especially among mothers. In 2015, 46% of mothers said they had done, at least once during the day, some sort of activity while simultaneously tending to their children. In comparison, this proportion was 30% for fathers (data not shown). This information is not available for 1986.

Parents are less likely to spend time shopping than 30 years ago

The last type of unpaid household activity that can be compared for both reference years are purchases and services (e.g., grocery shopping, shopping for clothes, car maintenance, research for purchasing goods and services, etc.). As was the case with help and care of children, these activities can be pleasant to some. Despite this, they cannot be considered leisure activities because it would theoretically be possible to hire a paid employee to carry them out (which is not the case for a leisure activity such as watching television, playing sports, or so on).

Trends regarding the participation of fathers and mothers in purchase- and service-related activities are different than those recorded for other types of household work and child care. Between 1986 and 2015, the daily participation rate decreased for mothers, reaching 36% in 2015 compared with 46% in 1986. The rate remained relatively the same for fathers, at around 25% (Table 1).

However, for both mothers and fathers who had taken part in this type of activity, time spent on the activity was not as high as it was 30 years ago.Note 7 For example, among those who went shopping, time spent on the activity was less than 90 minutes, a 23-minute decrease.

More time spent commuting

The amount of time Canadians spend on travelling to and from work has increased considerably from the early 1990s to 2010 (Turcotte 2011). More specifically, the amount of time Canadians spend commuting to work or elsewhere also increased significantly between 1986 and 2015. This was particularly true for mothers.

In fact, mothers who had commuted during the day had spent an average of 17 minutes more on the commute than they had 30 years ago. Annually, this represents over 103 full hours, and 4 more additional full days dedicated to commuting (whether by car, walking or another means of transportation). This increase can possibly be explained by the rise in the proportion of women who held a paid job outside the home.

Factors associated with the involvement of fathers and mothers

The first sections of this article focused on the participation of fathers and mothers in household work, child care and unpaid work in general. The sections that follow will look at the factors and individual characteristics associated with participation in unpaid work (household work and child care), as well as in the differences between fathers and mothers in 2015.

The factors associated with participation are not necessarily the same for fathers and mothers, and can also differ based on whether we look at household work or child care.

Mothers do household work, regardless of how long they spend on paid work

Time spent on paid work, by definition, is time that cannot be dedicated to unpaid household work and child care. However, a number of day-to-day household activities must be repeated every day, whether or not an individual has worked outside the home, such as preparing meals or lunches for the children, cleaning up after meals, and so on.

A mother’s propensity to participate in household work varied according to whether or not she had participated in paid work during the reference day. For example, 86% of mothers who had worked 8 or more hours during the day had performed household work, compared with 95% of those who had not participated in paid work.

The scenario was similar for fathers, who were also less likely to spend time on household work when they had participated in paid work during the day. Specifically, whereas 87% of fathers who had not worked during the reference day had been involved in household work, this was the case for 65% of them who had worked 8 hours or more (Table 2).

Among fathers who had not participated in paid work but who had performed household work during the reference day, the average time spent on household work was 225 minutes. In comparison, the average time spent on household work was 77 minutes for those who had worked 8 hours or more during the day. Similar trends were seen among women. These results possibly stem from the fact that some household work that takes more time can be done during days off.

For fathers and mothers alike, the daily participation rate and time spent helping and caring for children decreased when the number of hours of paid work in the day increased (Table 3). That being said, in almost all categories of hours of paid work, mothers were more likely than fathers to have helped their children or provided child care.

For example, among parents having participated in 8 hours or more of paid work during the day, 60% of mothers had provided help or care to their children, compared with 44% of fathers. In fact, mothers who had worked at a paid job for 8 hours or more during the day were more likely to have provided child care than fathers who had not worked at all during the day (60% versus 50%).

Fathers of young children are less likely than fathers of older children to do household work, but are more present when it comes to helping or caring for their children

In 2015, fathers of young children aged 4 or younger were somewhat less likely (73%) to perform household work than fathers of children aged 13 and over (81%). In comparison, the participation rate of mothers in household work remained higher than that of fathers, regardless of the children’s age. In fact, a large majority of them (above 90%) had performed household work during the reference day, regardless of their children’s age.

Parental responsibilities, like providing help and care to children, decrease as children get older. In 2015, 72% of fathers with at least one child between 0 and 4 years of age had provided help or care to their child during the day. By comparison, the proportion for fathers whose youngest child was 13 years or older was 10%. A similar scenario was reported among women: 90% of mothers with a child between the ages of 0 and 4 had provided help or care to their child, compared with 24% of mothers whose youngest child was between 13 and 17 years of age.

For all children’s age groups, the daily participation rate of fathers had increased in comparison with 1986. However, the participation rate of mothers exceeded that of fathers for each of the age groups. For example, among parents whose youngest child was between the ages of 5 and 12, 68% of mothers, compared with 51% of fathers, had provided them with help or child care.

Fathers born in Canada are more likely to spend time on household work

Numerous studies have revealed that the level of involvement of men in household and domestic tasks varied considerably by national context. On the one hand, cultural values that pertain to gender roles and that are sometimes very different from one society to another can also have an impact on the more or less equal sharing of tasks within the household (see Cooke and Baxter 2010; Hook 2010).

On the other hand, different public policies can also have a longer-term impact on how parents share their parental and household responsibilities (Hook 2010). In Canada, family policies vary from one province to another. For example, non-transferable parental leave for fathers exists only in Quebec. This could lead us to believe that the place of birth or residence could have an impact on the level of involvement of fathers.

Despite this and considering all household work, the province or residence did not seem to be an influencing factor; participation rates are not significantly different among provinces.

However, when we look at the different types of household activities, larger gaps can be seen. More specifically, fathers in Quebec were more likelyNote 8 (41% participation rate) than those from other areas of the country to participate in housework (housekeeping, dishes, laundry, ironing, etc.) (Chart 4).

Chart 4 Daily participation rate of fathers in different types of household work, by place of residence, 2015

Data table for Chart 4
Data table for Chart 4
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 4. The information is grouped by Types of household tasks (appearing as row headers), Preparing meals, Cleaning, laundry and other housework, Outdoor work and repairs and Other unpaid household work, calculated using percentage units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Types of household tasks Preparing meals Cleaning, laundry and other housework Outdoor work and repairs Other unpaid household work
percentage
Atlantic provinces 52.74 35.35 21.90 17.06Note E: Use with caution
Quebec 59.35 41.39 24.43 17.27
Ontario 59.75 31.48 16.11 17.98
Prairies 56.73 25.06 16.74Note E: Use with caution 14.92
British Columbia 65.91 28.67 17.99Note E: Use with caution 23.72Note E: Use with caution

Education

The proportion of fathers who perform domestic tasks varies by education level. In 2015, 81% of fathers with a postsecondary diploma or certificate spent some time doing domestic tasks, whereas the rate for fathers with a high school diploma or less was 71%. The rate for fathers with a university degree was not much different, at 73%. On the other hand, the rate for mothers does not vary significantly by education level, hovering around 90% (Table 2).

When it came to care of children, however, higher education levels were associated with increased participation rates for both fathers and mothers. In 2015, 43% of fathers and 60% of mothers with a high school diploma or less devoted some time on an average day to child care, whereas the rates were 53% for fathers and 71% for mothers with a university degree. Regardless of education level, mothers devoted significantly more time to child care than fathers in 2015 (Table 3).

Work schedule

Children, particularly school-aged children, usually have a schedule that can be qualified as regular, at least from the point of view of most workers: waking up and having breakfast, organized or supervised activities from the morning until the end of the afternoon (school, daycare or home), followed by dinner and bedtime.

Because it is very similar to their own schedule, this type of schedule can suit the majority of workers. However, tending to children and household work can be a greater challenge for parents who work non-traditional hours, either because they work rotating shifts or split schedules, in the evening or at night, or even irregular hours, etc.

In 2015, there was a gap between the participation rate in child care for mothers with a normal work schedule and those with a non-traditional schedule. For example, 68% of working mothers with a normal schedule had provided help or care to children during the day, compared with 55% of mothers who had a non-traditional schedule.

Moreover, self-employed workers can have schedules that vary significantly. For example, some self-employed workers must adjust their work hours based on their clients’ needs, whereas others must work mostly during the evening. When looking at self-employed parents who participate in household work, there were major differences between fathers and mothers. Among self-employed mothers in 2015, almost all (95%) had performed household work during an average day, compared with only 70% of self-employed fathers. This difference could be explained in part by the fact that more self-employed women work from home, especially to find a work–life balance (Turcotte 2010).

Finally, the distance between the place of work and the home, which can be associated with an increase in commuting time, was not associated with the probability of having or not having performed household work during the day. The amount of time spent on household work as well as on helping and caring for children was not correlated with the distance of the commute between the home and the workplace.

Conclusion

Inequalities between men and women, with regard to unpaid housework and parental responsibilities, are related to inequalities that exist in the workplace (and vice versa) (Hook 2010). For this reason, it is important to track trends in the division of tasks between fathers and mothers, namely household work and parental responsibilities.

Between 1986 and 2015, the proportion of fathers who participated in household work and in the help and care of children increased considerably. At the same time, the proportion of mothers who did so remained relatively stable. As a result, mothers were more likely to have taken part in both household work and in the help and care of children.

The participation rate of fathers did not increase at the same pace for all types of household work. For example, fathers’ participation in preparing meals rose from 29% to 59% between 1986 and 2015; during the same period, their participation in cleaning, laundry and other indoor household work rose from 22% to 33%. Studies on perceptions of housework show that many men are not interested in participating in certain types of household work.

Data sources and definitions

This report is based on the data from the 2015 and 1986 General Social Survey (GSS). The target population was composed of people aged 15 and over living in the 10 provinces of Canada, except for people living full time in institutions.

For more information on data sources, please refer to the following documents:

2015 GSS on Time Use

1986 GSS on Time Use

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General Social Survey – Time Use

The General Social Survey (GSS) on Time Use is a cross-sectional survey, whose target population consists of non-institutionalized persons 15 years of age and older, living in the 10 provinces. While the GSS is collected every year on different themes, time use is generally measured every five years. This study compares data from 1986, Cycle 2 with data from 2015, Cycle 29.

While the surveys were conducted 30 years apart, the results presented here are for questions on time use and various characteristics that were asked in a similar manner. A 24-hour diary was used to retrospectively collect all the activities a respondent did on a designated day starting at 4:00 a.m. and ending at 4:00 a.m. the next day. All activities lasting at least 10 minutes were recorded. For each activity, additional information was also gathered to provide a better picture of how long the activity lasted, where it happened and who was present during the activity.

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Definitions

Reference day and average

In the General Social Survey on Time Use, during data collection, the sample was uniformly distributed across the year in order to get time use diaries for each day of the week and for all the months of the year. The average day concept reflects the average participation rate and time allocated to the different activities for all days of the week across the year for a given population.

Participation rates

Participation rates can be described as the proportion of persons who reported having done an activity on an average day.

2015 Activity codes:

Paid work:

Meal preparation:

Household chores and interior maintenance:

Household chores and exterior maintenance:

Other unpaid work related to the household:

Care for children:

Shopping for goods or services:

1986 activity codes:

Paid work:

Meals preparation:

Domestic work and interior maintenance:

Domestic work and outside maintenance:

Other unpaid work related to the household:

Care of children:

Shopping and Services:

References

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Bianchi, S. M., Milkie, M. A., Sayer, L. C., and Robinson, J. P. (2000). Is anyone doing the housework? Trends in the gender division of household labor. Social Forces, 79, 191 – 228.

Bittman, M., England, P., Sayer, L. C., Folbre, N., and Matheson, G. 2003. When does gender trump money? Bargaining and time in household work. American Journal of Sociology, 109, 186 – 214.

Brines, J. 1994. Economic dependency, gender and the division of labor at home. American Journal of Sociology, 100, 652 – 688.

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Raley, S., Bianchi, S., and Wang, W. 2012. “When Do Fathers Care? Mothers’ Economic Contribution and Fathers’ Involvement in Child Care.” American Journal of Sociology, 117(5): 1422-59.

Sullivan, O. 2013. “What Do We Learn About Gender by Analyzing Housework Separately From Child Care? Some Considerations From Time-Use Evidence”, Journal of Family Theory and Review, vol.5, p.72-84.

Turcotte, M. 2010. “Working at home: An update”, component of Statistics Canada catalogue no.11-008-X Canadian social trends.

Turcotte, M. 2011. « Commuting to work: Results of the 2010 General Social Survey », component of Statistics Canada catalogue no.11-008-X Canadian social trends.

Yeung, W. J., Sandberg, J., Davis-Kean, P., Hofferth, S. (2001). “Children’s Time with Fathers in Intact Families.” Journal of Marriage and Family 63: 136-154.

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