Gender inequality in work–life balance

A study on reconciling work and family, carried out by the National Institute for Statistics, reveals significant inequalities between men and women from a work–life balance perspective. Regarding employed couples, Italian women bear a greater burden of care responsibilities than women from other European Union Member States, while Italian men are the least involved in such work among all of the men surveyed in Europe.

A 2008 study by the National Institute for Statistics (Istituto Nazionale di Statistica, Istat) on Reconciling work and family: A daily challenge (in Italian, 2.7Mb PDF) finds that inequality between the genders represents a deep-rooted issue in Italy. The situation of women, both employed and unemployed, is strictly related to their burden of care responsibilities. For employed women, this burden is reduced compared with that of unemployed women; nevertheless, it is still high, standing at almost 11.3 percentage points more than for employed men. Gender equality is thus still far from being achieved.

Uneven division of domestic work

In Italy, the amount of time dedicated to domestic work is the most evident element of gender inequality in the use of daily time. Women’s employment rate is influenced by domestic and care work and it generally depends on partners’ sharing of care responsibilities. The increasing participation of women in paid work has modified the gender division of domestic tasks; nonetheless, women still carry the heaviest load in terms of working hours spent on care work.

As Table 1 shows, a gender imbalance is apparent in relation to the situation of employed women in Italy. Italian women spend three hours and 53 minutes in care work each day; this is the longest length of time for such tasks in the 15 EU Member States (EU15) before EU enlargement in 2004. Looking at the new Member States, the length of time that women spend in care work is higher only in Slovenia (four hours and 24 minutes), Estonia (four hours and four minutes), Poland (three hours and 58 minutes) and Hungary (three hours and 54 minutes).

Furthermore, the Institute for the Development of Vocational Training (Istituto per lo Sviluppo della Formazione Professionale dei Lavoratori, Isfol) published related survey findings in a 2006 report entitled Quality of work in Italy – Second survey (in Italian, 1.2Mb PDF). This study highlights that, while men choose to spend their time on leisure pursuits such as fun, cultural and sports activities, women are more involved in household responsibilities, primarily in domestic tasks and in taking care of older relatives.

Table 1: Time use of employed people, by gender, 2006 (hours and minutes)
  Italy  EU Norway average
  Men Women Men Women
Sleeping 7.59 8.00 8.07 8.16
Meals and personal care 2.52 2.44 2.18 2.19
Care work 1.10 3.53 1.55 3.38
Paid work, studying   6.12 4.37 5.31 4.31
Total work   7.22 8.30 7.34 8.10
Commuting 1.40 1.28 1.24 1.18
Free time 4.07 3.18 4.35 3.56

Note: Countries included in the survey: Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Source: Eurostat, 2006

Considering all of the countries surveyed, Italian men are the least involved in care work (one hour and 10 minutes). In fact, comparing their contribution with women’s participation in such work (three hours and 53 minutes), Italy emerges in first position for gender inequalities.

Impact on employment rates

This imbalance is also confirmed by the gender differences in terms of employment rates. As Table 2 shows, single men and women have similar rates of employment. Regarding the position of couples without children, gender inequalities between the total male and female groups amount to 23.9 percentage points; however, they are smaller than the inequalities between couples with children (35.6 percentage points). With regard to family composition, the highest family load is carried by women. In couples with three or more children, the employment rate is the most imbalanced, especially for the youngest couples: for couples aged 25–34 years, the difference between men and women is 62.8%.

Table 2: Employment rates, by gender and family status (%)
  25–34 years 35–44 years 45–54 years 55–64 years Total
  Men Women Men Women Men Women Men Women Men Women
Single 83.7 81.3 89.2 86.7 84.0 75.9 40.7 25.5 76.3 60.4
Lone parent 70.2 67.0 90.0 75.6 88.0 66.8 43.7 26.1 66.8 57.1
In couple without children 93.8 75.3 95.1 76.5 88.8 51.3 32.4 15.1 69.8 45.9
In couple with children 92.1 46.3 94.0 55.1 89.9 49.7 48.6 22.7 82.3 46.7
- One child 93.2 46.3 94.0 55.1 89.9 49.7 48.6 22.7 82.3 46.7
- Two children 90.4 46.3 94.0 55.1 89.9 49.7 48.6 22.7 82.3 46.7
- Three children and over 88.6 25.8 90.7 37.4 88.6 39.1 54.4 23.5 83.1 35.4
Son/daughter in household 70.9 58.4 75.6 64.2 67.9 61.2 36.7 37.6 71.2 59.1
Total 80.1 58.2 91.2 61.3 88.1 53.5 42.7 20.8 77.4 49.7

Source: Statistical Office of the European Communities (Eurostat), 2006

Women have less free time

The Istat report has also examined the participation of men and women in domestic chores in relation to family composition. As shown by the Istat Time use survey (5.1Mb PDF), conducted in 2002–2003 – the results of which are partially described in the latest report – women in a family with three members are the most involved in domestic work, while lone mothers are in a more favourable situation. Free time for lone mothers amounts to three hours and 21 minutes, while that of women with a husband and children is two hours and 57 minutes.

Italian women have less free time than men at all stages of the life cycle. Hence, for women with care responsibilities, free time is strictly related to the amount of domestic work and to the division of care responsibilities within the couple. Women aged between 20 and 64 years have three hours and 28 minutes of free time compared with four hours and 16 minutes for men. During the day, women have 3.3% less free time than men: this difference is related to the domestic work that women have to perform. Both employed and unemployed women aged 35–44 years have three hours of free time a week less than men of the same age. After 54 years of age, the difference within the couple decreases; nevertheless, it remains at over one hour among elderly people aged 75 years and over.

Effect of childcare services and region

The provision of childcare services plays an important role in reconciling work and family. In Italy, only 6% of the need for such services is met for children aged up to two years old; this proportion compares with 39.9% in France, 12% in Portugal and an EU15 average of 16%.

It has also been proved that the influence of domestic and care work in defining women’s participation in the labour market has a regional variation: the employment rate of mothers in southern Italy aged 35–44 years living in a couple is 36.5%, compared with 70.4% of women living in northeastern regions.

Asymmetry between genders

The Istat report finds some differentials in defining the relation between men and women within the employed couple. The index of these variations is the asymmetry rate that measures the proportion of time that women spend on domestic and care work within the couple. Its rate is 100 when all domestic and care work is carried out by women and 50 when there is a perfect matching between men and women. As shown in Table 3, the asymmetry rate has decreased between 1988/1989 and 2002/2003 for all employment conditions and positions. The reduction is higher for managers and professionals (-8.3) and for unskilled workers (-8.2) than it is for technicians, clerical and skilled workers (-4.5) and for self-employed workers and contractors (-3.9).

The asymmetry index is highest for couples in which men are self-employed: in other words, the longer working day for men implied by self-employment is sustained by women’s higher commitment to domestic and care work.

Table 3: Asymmetry rate in domestic and care work of employed couples
  With children Without children Total Changes
Years 1988/1989 2002/2003 1988/1989 2002/2003 1988/1989 2002/2003  
Women’s employment position              
Employee 81.4 75.2 76.7 72.4 80.6 74.7 -5.9
Self-employed 83.7 79.3 82.9 72.9 83.5 77.8 -5.7
Women’s professional position              
Managers and professionals 81.1 72.4 73.5 69.7 80.1 71.8 -8.3
Technicians, clerks and skilled workers 79.5 74.9 75.4 71.7 78.7 74.2 -4.5
Unskilled workers 84.8 76.4 80.0 74.4 84.2 76.0 -8.2
Self-employed workers, contractors 84.0 81.7 83.8 74.0 83.9 80.0 -3.9
Men’s employment condition              
Employee 80.2 73.4 76.8 69.1 79.7 72.5 -7.2
Self-employed 86.3 81.5 81.3 78.8 85.4 80.9 -4.5
Total 82.0 76.1 78.3 72.5 81.3 75.4 -5.9

Note: The asymmetry rate measures the proportion of time that women spend on domestic and care work within the couple. Its rate is 100 when all domestic and care work is carried out by women and 50 when there is a perfect matching between men and women.

Source: Istat Multiscopo Survey, 1988/1989, 2002/2003


The 2008 Istat report on reconciling work and family finds that inequality between the genders in the division of domestic work represents a deep-rooted challenge in Italy. Even measures provided by Law No. 53/2000 on parental leave are inadequate to balance the structural disparity between the genders, due to the presence of narrow work organisation patterns that make it more difficult to encourage flexible working time arrangements (IT0502NU02, IT0603NU04). As highlighted by Istat, the lack of extensive childcare services increases gender inequalities because of wage discrimination and the vulnerable situation of women in the labour market (see Maternity and women’s participation in the labour market: Constraints and conciliation strategies (in Italian)).

Trade unions and employers are still far from considering the reconciliation of work and family as a crucial concern to foster women’s participation in the labour market. In their view, work-life balance still represents a female peculiarity; thus, the gender division of care responsibilities continues to reinforce inequalities within the couple and in the labour market composition.

Moreover, the small size of many companies as well as territorial differentials between northern and southern regions constitute long-term and limiting boundaries that inhibit the achievement of equal opportunities in work–life balance between men and women. The problem is therefore perceived as a women’s issue.

Further information

Del Boca, D. and Locatelli, M., ‘Motherhood and participation’ in Del Boca, D. and Wetzels, C. (eds.), Social policies, labour markets and motherhood, Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 155–180.

Del Boca, D., Pasqua, S. and Pronzato, C., ‘Market work and motherhood decisions in contexts’, Discussion Paper No. 3303, Institute for the Study of Labour (Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit, IZA), Bonn, Germany, January 2008, available online at:

Tania Toffanin, CESOS




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