As more women enter "male" professions, such as construction and trucking, and more men move into "female" fields, like teaching and secretarial work, will women stop doing the lion's share of household chores?
That's the utopian possibility hinted at by a new study presented Tuesday at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting. The report found that when men move from fields that are dominated by their sex to jobs that are more commonly held by women, they spend more time doing housework, while their wives and girlfriends do less. Yet as women move into more female-dominated professions, they take on even more housework, while their husbands or boyfriends do less.
Study author and University of Notre Dame sociologist Elizabeth Aura McClintock used data from 1981 to 2009, taken from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the longest-running household survey in the world. She focused on heterosexual relationships.
"The real finding here is that we need to fundamentally reconsider the gendering of housework," McClintock told The Huffington Post. "Most men should be doing more."
A widely-covered Pew report from May found that a record 40 percent of all U.S. homes with children under the age of 18 are headed by mothers who are the family's sole or primary source of income.
But while so-called "breadwinner moms" are on the rise, studies suggest that women still do roughly two-thirds of the housework. Last month, an Economic and Social Research Council survey found that in countries such as Greece and in the U.K., women do upwards of 70 to 80 percent of the chores -- in many cases while working more than 30 hours per week outside of the home.
In her new study, McClintock hypothesized that a major determinant of how housework is divided is the gender composition in a man or woman's field, in other words, the proportion of females and males.
A profession was considered predominately male or female if three-quarters or more of the people doing it were of one gender. Auto mechanics, truck drivers, construction workers, farmers, guards and watchmen, were some of the male-dominated fields, while nurses, secretaries, childcare workers, teachers and maids were among the female-dominated fields.
During the period measured in the study -- from 1981 to 2009 -- there were shifts in the sex composition of some professions, but relatively small ones, explained Julie Brines, an associate professor of sociology with the University of Washington who researches gender stratification and household dynamics. More women moved into male-dominated occupations than vice-versa.
But when men did move into more female-dominated professions, they tended to do roughly 1.4 more hours of housework each week. (The researchers were comparing men and women to themselves at various points, after switching jobs, not to other people.)
One way of interpreting the findings, McClintock said, is that as more men enter into typically female jobs, the division of labor will begin to even in many households -- perhaps because working in a more feminine environment causes men to respect women's paid and unpaid work more.
A decidedly more "glass-half-empty" interpretation, she said, hinges on the idea that men who work in more traditionally female roles suffer a sort of romantic stigma. They're less desirable in the marriage or re-marriage market and therefore, become more dependent on their current relationship, motivating them to do more housework.
And while outside experts such as Brines, who did not work on the new study, called the new findings "very intriguing," she doubts they herald a time when the balance of the work around the house will even out.
"The changes in housework time that come from moving between jobs like truck driver versus nurse are pretty small -- about 1.5 [more] hours per week of housework for husbands, and 3 [fewer] hours for wives," she said, adding that does not "come close to shrinking the still very large gap between the average husband and wife's housework time."