Household chores can be pretty fraught: Who does what and how is it decided? And what does it mean about equality and harmony in your household?
If bitter fights over dirty dishes feel like the gender wars, or you’ve found yourself ranting about The Second Shift, a new study from Indiana University suggests you’re onto something. For most Americans, the survey study found, chore roles align with traditional thinking on masculinity and femininity ― even among couples where a woman is the primary or sole breadwinner and even in same-sex couples.
The researchers were surprised by how much gender mattered ― and how little income did.
“Most research on housework suggests that couples divide housework along different axes; for example, lower-earning partners do more housework than higher-earning partners,” said lead author Natasha Quadlin, a doctoral student at Indiana University. “Instead, our findings suggest that [gender] is by far the biggest determinant of Americans’ attitudes toward housework.”
How the study worked
Quadlin recruited a randomized, representative sample of 1,025 participants and gave them each a sample marriage scenario to consider. The genders of the hypothetical partners and their relative incomes varied, along with information about their gender roles (in other words, if a partner could be described as more masculine or feminine).
Here’s an example of one of the vignettes:
Brian and Matt met five years ago and have been married for just over a year. Brian is a physical therapist at a hospital, bringing home about $57,500 a year, and Matt is a reporter for a local newspaper, bringing home about $25,250 a year. They are both very busy, each working 40 hours per week. Despite their busy schedules, they try to do things together regularly. In fact, one of the only reoccurring arguments they have is what to do on the weekend together. Brian usually wants to play basketball if they are going out, or watch an action movie if they are staying in. Instead, Matt would rather go shopping or watch a romantic comedy.
She then asked participants to indicate which partner should have primary responsibility for eight household chores and four childcare tasks. The household chores were: cooking, washing dishes, cleaning, grocery shopping, doing laundry, “outdoor chores” (such as mowing the lawn or taking out the garbage), making auto repairs and managing finances. The childcare tasks were physical care, emotional care, discipline and primary caregiving.
Gender matters more than income
Participants assigned straight women more female-typed chores, more gender-neutral chores and more physical and emotional caregiving than their partners. This held true even if the woman earned more money than the man.
While relative income determined whether or not the husband or the wife would become the stay-at-home caregiver, Quadlin pointed out that low-earning men in straight relationships were still expected to do fewer chores and fewer childcare tasks than their wives.
But even though gender mattered most, Quadlin found that participants gave primary responsibility for cooking, cleaning, laundry and dishes, as well as being a primary caregiver for a child, to lower-earning partners, while expecting the higher-wage earners to manage the household finances. Income didn’t have any bearing on groceries, car maintenance or outdoor chores. However, the effects of relative income were minor — for instance, low-wage earners were given responsibility for cooking 55 percent of the time, versus 45 percent for higher earners.
Same-sex couples are still beholden to gender norms
Among both straight and same-sex couples, typically “female” chores like cooking, cleaning, laundry and grocery shopping were assigned to the partner perceived as most “feminine.”
Partners perceived as more masculine were assigned typically “male” chores like car maintenance and outdoor chores. Feminine partners were expected to care for a child’s physical and emotional needs, but discipline and stay-at-home parenting wasn’t linked to gender.
In same-sex couples, where the partners were by definition of the same gender, a stronger predictor for chore assignment was stereotypically gendered behavior, such as liking sports vs. liking baking. In straight couples, by contrast, sports-loving wives were still more likely to do the “feminine” chores than a husband who baked.
This study shows we have a long way to go when it comes to equality at home
In contrast to Quadlin’s research, data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that American households are slowly evolving beyond traditional gender roles in the home.
From 2003 to 2015, men’s participation in food prep and clean up on an average day increased from 35 percent to 43 percent, and the time spent doing these activities increased from 16 minutes to 21 minutes. During the same time span, the share of women doing housework on an average day decreased from 54 percent to 50 percent, and the time they spent doing housework declined from 58 minutes to 52 minutes. This data is broken up by gender, which means there’s no information about whether people are in same-sex or heterosexual relationships.
However, it’s still true that women do the lion’s share of housework. On an average day in 2015, 85 percent of women spent time doing things like housework, cooking, lawn care or financial management, while only 67 percent of men did so. Women spent an average of 2.6 hours on housework on the days they did housework, while men spent 2.1 hours.
And on an average day, 22 percent of men are doing housework like cleaning or laundry, while 50 percent of women are doing the same. It’s also clear that if women are partnered and have children, they’re more than likely coming home after a long day of work to face more household and childcare responsibilities than their partners.
While these statistics indicate that women are still doing the bulk of housework and childcare, they can’t tell us whether it’s because she’s a woman, she acts more feminine or she has a lower salary than her (usually male) partner.
Quadlin’s survey disentangles the possible factors that might be driving this inequity, and shows clearly that a woman generally does most chores simply because she is a woman, she explained.
Why it matters that women are stuck with most of the chores
“We have data on how people spend their time, and how many hours people are spending on chores,” said Quadlin. “But by looking at Americans’ attitudes about who should be doing chores, we’re better able to understand what it is about partners that creates expectations about housework.”
This never-ending workday may have harmful effects on a woman’s health; a recent study found that women who work more than 60 hours a week are at a higher risk of several chronic diseases, while this wasn’t true in men who worked the same amount of time outside the home.
And in addition to the health effects of this “second shift” of work women perform, other research shows that women are more likely than men to initiate divorce. This could be because they suffer more from deeply unequal divisions of household chores and childcare, even when both partners work.
Despite the popular notion that same sex couples distribute chores more evenly (see Sheryl Sandberg’s advice for women to marry other women), Quadlin’s study shows that when couples have the same gender, they still fall prey to the same norms, using gendered behavior as a proxy for gender itself.
Quadlin plans to publish this research in a journal in the future, but presented the results Aug. 21 at the American Sociological Association’s 111th Annual Meeting in Seattle.