A new report from Gallup shows that women in marriages or cohabiting relationships are still more likely to clean the house, wash the dishes, do laundry, grocery shop, cook and make decisions about furniture and decorations ― even among younger generations who are otherwise more egalitarian in their views.
Men aren’t resting on their laurels entirely, but the few tasks they do pick up ― keeping the car in running condition and doing yardwork ― are traditionally male ones.
When it comes to child care, the survey found that young couples’ division of labor was more or less equal compared to older couples (though women were still likely to do more of it). And when both parents earn roughly the same income, men are more likely to help with washing dishes and cleaning, in addition to taking care of children.
Interestingly, perceptions about who does certain household tasks differ sharply by gender: Both men and women were each more likely to say that they perform an equal or larger share of the work than their partner does.
The findings might be unexpected to some ― after all, in 2020, women hold more jobs than men and obtain higher level of education than men ― but sociologists aren’t surprised. Housework simply doesn’t seem to be following the same trajectory in the struggle for equality.
“I think it has a lot to do with our deeply held stereotypes and assumptions about traditional gender roles at home ― they are quite difficult to challenge or break once set into motion,” said Rebecca Horne, a third year PhD student in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto.
Last year, Horne was the lead author of a different study that found women of all ages still tend to do more household chores than their male partners, no matter how much they work or earn in a job outside the home.
The hidden nature of housework ensures that we don’t talk about these inequities in the same way we do the wage gap or the lack of women in corporate leadership roles.
“We can objectively point to wages in the paid labor market to challenge gender inequality,” Horne said in an email, “but it’s hard to track housework: All the time, energy, and effort that goes into household labor, whether it’s organizing the kids’ schedules or picking up milk or other households goods. That’s invisible.”
What the Gallup findings show is that gender ― rather than, say, earning power of individuals ― is what shapes the division of household labor, said Aliya Hamid Rao, an assistant professor of sociology at Singapore Management University and the author of the forthcoming book “Crunch Time: How Married Couples Confront Unemployment.”
“I think many social scientists assumed that things would become more gender egalitarian as younger individuals got into partnerships and forged their relationships. But we're not seeing that happen.”
“I think it’s likely that these working women do more housework as a way to affirm their husband’s masculinity ― or what scholars call the gender display theory ― and to assure their partners that they don’t need to be threatened by them earning more than them.”
The home — and heterosexual marriages (research shows that same-sex couples divide chores much more evenly, at least up until they become parents) — appear to be more resistant to gender equality than other areas of modern life.
“I think many social scientists assumed that things would become more gender egalitarian as younger individuals got into partnerships and forged their relationships,” Rao said. “But we’re not seeing that happen in the way many had thought. Instead, we’re seeing traditional ideas maintaining a stronghold.”
A lack of affordable child care makes the chore divide worse.
Some of the unequal division of labor in young families can be attributed to the lack of family-friendly work policies in the U.S. (good parental leave and universal child care, for instance), said Oriel Sullivan, professor of the sociology of gender at University College London.
Without access to available and affordable child care, heterosexual couples default to old gender assumptions.
“In countries where quality care is both available and affordable, leaving young children in these facilities is the norm,” she said. “In countries where they are not, there is inevitably pressure on one parent –- in practice almost always the woman ― either to remain at home herself over a period of several years, or to return to limited part-time work or to rely on assistance from family members, usually other women.”
But men also aren’t incentivized to pick up the slack.
Even if we had Nordic-esque universal child care, genuine change would require a shift in thinking.
“Even with such a transformation in policy, a sea change is unlikely to happen without simultaneous changes in the ideology of traditional masculinity and associated workplace expectations,” Sullivan said. “The notion that ‘real’ men don’t do ‘feminine’ things like care or housework must be combated.”
Men have little incentive to pick up the slack with housework, said Jill Yavorsky, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Cleaning the house every week is routine and boring, and it takes away from free time and paid work. And there’s absolutely no financial gain with housework.
“I think some of this is about men not wanting to give up certain privileges,” Yavorsky said. “Our efforts to increase gender equality over the past several decades have really focused on changing women’s behaviors and opportunities, not men’s.”
This is the missing half of the gender revolution, the professor said. “We haven’t expanded the roles and expectations associated with men. What it means to be a ‘good man’ is still highly associated with having a stable, breadwinning job, and still avoiding feminized activities.”
Ideas about highly genderized chores take root in childhood.
Parents have a lot of sway in changing the way a future generation views chores. Though many moms and dads try to teach their children more gender-neutral ideas about work ― a girl can do any job a boy can do, for instance ― the same isn’t true for housework.
According to a 2017 analysis, girls who are 15 to 19 years old spend about 45 minutes doing household chores every day while boys in the same age group spend about 30 minutes. And Yavorsky’s research on division of labor has shown that mothers are more likely to incorporate girls than boys into their daily housework.
Healthy modeling is possible, though.
“Recent research shows that a man who grows up in a household with an employed mother is more likely to share unpaid labor more equally in his future partnerships,” she said. “That’s likely because he witnessed his father doing more around the home because his mother also worked in paid employment.”
For parents of boys, it’s incredibly important to remind them that they can do everything their sisters can do, too.
“What we know from research on masculinity and femininity is that there are more ‘options’ in femininity,” Rao said. “What I mean is that young girls may be told that they can do it all: bake, cook, yardwork, fix the car’s tire.”
It’s far less common to see young boys being told they’re just as capable of tidying up around the house or cooking and not just responsible for yardwork. We need to give boys more options, Rao and Yavorsky both said.
“Parents here have an opportunity to model gender roles and establish patterns for what it means to be a ‘good man’ and a ‘good woman’ with regards to home life,” Yavorsky said.