Counting the hours: The challenges of measuring time use


by Elena Martinez | August 30, 2017

In July 2017, the World Bank released three methodological working papers discussing the challenges of measuring key areas of women’s empowerment, including time use, women’s agency, and ownership, control, and use of assets. This blog highlights one of these papers, “Measuring time use in development settings,” written by A4NH researchers Greg Seymour, Hazel Malapit, and Agnes Quisumbing.

Photo credit: Neil Palmer/CIAT

Photo credit: Neil Palmer/CIAT

Having time to earn income and care for oneself and one’s family is essential for improving well-being. However, work is often not split evenly between men and women. Women tend to do domestic work like household chores and child care, while men tend to take on income-generating activities. In fact, a 2010 UN report found that, around the world, women spend at least twice as much time as men on domestic tasks and, accounting for both paid and unpaid labor, spend more time working overall than men. This time burden can hurt women by limiting their access to paid work and education, as well as time for leisure, self-care, and social activities.

Research shows that involving women in agriculture can improve household nutrition. When they are involved in farming, women have more control over food and income, which they are more likely than men to use to feed their families. However, if women spend more time on agriculture, they may have less time for tasks like preparing food, caring for children, and hygiene, which are also important for their families’ health and nutrition. So, successful nutrition-sensitive agricultural interventions must carefully consider both women’s and men’s time use.

Unfortunately, measuring time use is not easy. In their paper, “Measuring time use in development settings,” Greg Seymour, Hazel Malapit, and Agnes Quisumbing discuss the challenges of feasibly and accurately measuring time use in developing countries. They use data from Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) surveys in Bangladesh and Uganda to compare the most commonly used methods of data collection.

Methods to measure time use

The most common methods of measuring time use are stylized survey questions and time diaries. Stylized questions focus on a specific activity, asking respondents how much time they spent on that activity over a given period. For example, “how much time did you spend milking cows in the past 7 days?”

Stylized time use questions from the WEAI Pilot II in Bangladesh and Uganda

Stylized time use questions from the WEAI Pilot II in Bangladesh and Uganda

In comparison, time diaries ask respondents to recall all their activities within a given period, such as the last 24 hours. Time diaries administered by a survey enumerator are considered the gold standard for collecting time use data in developing countries. However, there is little evidence to support this idea, and there is no standard way to administer either method, so it is often difficult to compare results between studies.

24-hour recall time diary from the WEAI Pilot II in Bangladesh and Uganda

24-hour recall time diary from the WEAI Pilot II in Bangladesh and Uganda

Which method is more feasible and accurate?

Through analysis of data including both stylized questions and time diaries, the authors found that the two methods can provide equally accurate answers and take about the same amount of time to administer. However, the ability and training of the survey enumerator can impact a person’s answers, particularly for complex methods like time diaries. Though it seems like stylized questions would be faster, respondents often found these questions more difficult to answer because they had to recall activities over a longer period. For instance, time spent farming can be difficult to remember because it is a commonplace activity that does not always follow a set schedule.

Measuring the quality of time

Most time use research focuses on how much time was spent on an activity. However, the quality of time – a person’s experience doing an activity – is also important. For example, is an hour of work doing a task you dread the same as an hour doing a task you love? Or, is harvesting while also caring for children the same as harvesting alone? Some studies attempt to measure the quality of time by asking questions about how respondents felt during different activities or tracking energy expenditure through heart rate monitors or activity trackers. The authors suggest that future research should develop stronger methods to measure both the quantity and quality of time to better understand how time use impacts well-being.



Further resources:

Previous GNIE blogs about gender and time use:


This post is part of a blog, the Gender-Nutrition Idea Exchange, maintained by the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. To add your comments below, please register with Disqus or log in using your Facebook, Twitter, or Google accounts. You must be signed in or registered in order to leave a comment.