Gender and the politics of time, by Valerie Bryson

Policy Press, 2007, vi + 222 pp, pbk, 1 861 347497, £24.99, hbk 1 861 347503, £60

Our awareness of time is socially constructed, and in modern capitalist society we distinguish the ‘clock time’ of employment from leisure time dedicated to consumption. The author’s resistance to this dominant time culture involves ‘the assertion of the value of time that is not measured by money, a time that is neither committed to an employer nor simply set aside for leisure or consumption. Such time responds to human needs, whether these are to perform particular tasks in however long this takes, or to care for and communicate with others, or to build relationships’ (p.33).

Free time is a democratic resource, so it matters that a long-hours employment culture and the disproportionate amount of time spent by women on domestic and reproductive activities gives women less free time for political activity than men, and Bryson details recent government attempts in some countries to require men to contribute to household tasks. Time is a measure of welfare, and any measure of acceptable social standards ought to include an assessment of how much free time people have at their disposal.

The author gives reasons for treating women as a collective group with particular pressures on their time, and goes on to question the public / private distinction often employed in discussion of use of time because the distinction presupposes men’s needs and not women’s. She asks that we value and reward time spent on care rather than seeing it as a negative constraint, that governments should legislate for limits to time spent in employment, and that women should involve themselves in politics – and particularly in Trades Unions – in order to press for better work-family balance.

The author asks whether women have a distinctive ‘time culture’: that is, do they use their time in a distinctive way; and she discusses policy options: for instance, paid parental leave for men not only gives them more time to do caring work but it also functions as a societal statement that caring work belongs to men as well as to women. The detailed list of policy options on p.184 contains some useful ideas (such as that ‘part-time employment should be treated as normal for both men and women’ and that ’employment policies and pension entitlements should be based on the assumption that workers will normally want to work short hours or to take leave at various points in their life’), but it doesn’t recognise that changes to the tax and benefits system might be needed in order to turn such ideas into practical policy.

We do indeed need to ‘reassert the value of time that cannot be measured by the clock, the inescapability of natural physical rhythms and the value of human relationships’ (p.185), and a Citizen’s Income would, of course, be an important contribution to making such an essential change.