We've all heard of the gender pay gap, but what about the leisure gap? Leisure plays such an important role in our health, productivity, and wellbeing, yet according to a report by the ONS, men spend an average of five more hours a week engaged in leisure activities than women (that adds up to roughly 260 more hours per year).
So, particularly at a time when so many women are struggling to stay in the workforce, why does leisure time equality matter? Author of Reese Witherspoon’s book club pick Fair Play and time management expert Eve Rodsky explores this question, along with practical solutions, in her new book, Find Your Unicorn Space: Reclaim Your Creative Life in a Too-Busy World.
Rodsky encourages readers to “reclaim [their] right to be interesting” by carving out space in their busy schedules for leisure and creativity, which she refers to as “Unicorn Space”.
While it may feel counterintuitive, even potentially self-indulgent at times, having fun is vital for our physical and mental health, and therefore a key (if often overlooked) part of the fight for gender equality.
What is leisure, or Unicorn Space?
In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, philosopher Josef Pieper points out that the Greek word for leisure is the etymological root of the word “school”; far from being a passive concept, leisure is connected with learning, contemplation, creative thinking, and action.
Rodsky takes this a step further for modern readers by differentiating between rest or self-care (which includes things like getting enough sleep and exercise), socialising, and Unicorn Space — defined as personal time spent cultivating “the natural gifts, interests, and talents that make you uniquely you”.
Anything that lights you up and leaves you feeling refreshed and rejuvenated counts, whether that’s learning a language, taking up photography, or attending dance classes. Time spent doing something that you love, outside of work and domestic chores, can help you rediscover a sense of identity and purpose, leading to increased emotional resilience and a deepened sense of fulfilment.
Leisure shouldn’t be a luxury — even if it often feels that way
In Find Your Unicorn Space, Rodsky draws on extensive research to demonstrate how vital it is that we defend our leisure time and creative self-expression. “According to a study out of New Zealand, engaging in creative expression like I’m describing contributes to an ‘upward spiral’ of positive emotions, psychological well-being, and feelings of ‘flourishing’ in life, which researchers defined as feeling engaged in daily life, experiencing positive personal growth, and cultivating social connections,” she writes.
As Rodsky points out, research shows that leisure time (and the lack thereof) also has a huge impact on our physical and mental health. In one study conducted at UCLA focusing on dual-income couples with children, for example, Professor Darby Saxbe discovered the “everyday health toll” that more housework and less leisure time takes on women. “Partners who spent more of their time on housework had weaker evening recovery of their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone,” she explains.
Given the evidence, Rodsky urges readers to “begin thinking of the active and open pursuit of your creative self-expression not as optional or as an ‘add-on’ to your current life but as essential and fundamental to your physical, emotional, and mental health as a whole person.”
However, it’s also crucial to recognise that it’s harder for some people to access leisure time than others; single parents and people living in poverty, as well as people of colour who throughout history have had their right to leisure, rest, dignity, and personal autonomy denied by society at large.
When urging readers not to dismiss leisure as a luxury, though, Rodsky quotes social justice activist Mia Birdsong: “Turning away from work can feel like an indulgence, but in the context of capitalism, acts of joy are a form of rebellion and a deep affirmation of life, love, creativity, connectedness, and spirit.”
How to create more space for leisure and fun in your life
“The first step to guarding your time is awareness,” says Rodsky. “Do you operate as though your time expands to fit everyone else’s needs? If so, you need to recognise that your time is precious and finite, and that while many men don’t even question whether they’re ‘allowed’ leisure time, you’ll likely need to re-train your brain to overcome some toxic messages that our culture sends us about women’s time and how it should be spent.”
Recent research from educational charity The Female Lead confirms how vital it is to acknowledge the problem and shift your thinking about it. Their Women at Work report suggests that the root problem underlying many issues that keep women in a less privileged position in society is an “unentitled mindset”. As they put it, “if women expect less, then they will not complain about having less”. In essence, we need to start expecting more.
After recognising the importance of Unicorn Space, Rodsky says that the next step towards having more leisure time is to practice better boundary-setting. “Reframing [the way you think about your] time is only part of the equation. Boundary setting, in which you intentionally stake and guard your time, makes it whole,” she writes. “Guard your space and time,” Rodsky urges, “by clearly and respectfully communicating what you need and why you need it and by expressing appreciation, ahead of time, for having your boundary honoured.”
Don’t be afraid to start small, either. Rodsky and her research group found that “even in small doses — which is all most of us have on any given day — creating uninterrupted space and time for the things that bring us joy and enhance our sense of self (and that we can share with others) infused our lives with greater meaning and purpose.”
All the evidence suggests that this magical time spent doing the things that light us up helps us fight stress and avoid burnout, and is a vital tool to help us cope with life’s inevitable storms. As Rodsky puts it: “You are complicit in your own oppression when you willingly put yourself and your time second or last.”
So, take this as your impassioned call to action to have more fun. Has there ever been a more enjoyable way to fight the patriarchy?
Find Your Unicorn Space by Eve Rodsky is out 28 December, 2021.
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