Not All Housework Is Created Equal
How we divide some tasks matters more for relationship quality than others.
Posted Jun 28, 2018
The stories inspired by the #MeToo movement reveal that despite decades of struggle to achieve gender equality at work, patriarchy, misogyny, and the sexual objectification of women still run deep in our society. And yet the fact that harassers, abusers, and predators are being held accountable indicates that proponents of gender equality continue to make progress.
But what’s happening on the home front? Has the gender revolution there stalled, or is progress being made? Today, married men do roughly four hours of housework per week, up from two hours in 1965, but roughly the same as in 1995 (Bianchi et al. 2012). Married women perform much less housework today than in 1965 (14.2 hours vs. 30.4), but the amount hasn’t changed much since the mid-90s (14.2 hours vs. 15.8). Among youth, egalitarian attitudes about male authority at home and separate gender spheres increased from the 1960s through the mid-90s, but have reversed since, becoming more conventional.
Does this mean the gender revolution stalled? Not necessarily. Since the mid-90s, women have obtained a larger share of college degrees than men and increasingly earn as much or more than their partners, especially in the middle, working, and lower classes (Glynn 2012). Men have nearly tripled the amount of time they spend in direct care of children since 1965, with more than half of these gains occurring since the 90s (Bianchi et al. 2012), and twice as many men today are stay-at-home dads than 20 years ago, with four times as many saying they are doing it to care for their family (Pew Research Center 2014). Additionally, even though the attitudes of youth have become more conventional, results from the U.S. General Social Survey (GSS) indicate that after a lull in the mid-90s, U.S. adults’ valuation of gender egalitarianism has continued to increase since the mid-2000s (Shu and Meagher 2018).
In a study published in April in the journal Socius, my colleagues Amanda Miller, Sharon Sassler, and I find a significant increase in the proportion of low- to moderate-income parents sharing routine housework tasks between 1992 and 2006. In the 1990s, couples were most likely to share shopping (28 percent) and dishwashing (16 percent) and least likely to share laundry (9 percent) and house cleaning (12 percent). By 2006, the proportion of couples sharing house cleaning had nearly doubled, to 22 percent, and the proportion sharing the laundry had risen to 21 percent, an increase of 129 percent. The proportion who shared cooking rose from 13 percent to 21 percent, while the proportion sharing dishwashing increased from 16 to 29 percent. The increase in shared shopping was less dramatic — from 28 to 30 percent — but it remains the most frequently shared task, now closely followed by dishwashing. And the percent of couples where men did the majority of cooking, cleaning, laundry, and dishes roughly doubled from 1992 to 2006.
The gender revolution can be measured not only by the way we arrange our lives, but also by the consequences of those arrangements. And that too appears to have changed. In earlier decades, couples who shared housework equally reported lower levels of marital and sexual satisfaction, and less frequent sex, than couples who adhered to a more “conventional” division of labor. But for married and cohabiting couples since the early 1990s, the reverse is true. Although less than one-third of the couples we studied shared housework equally, these were the couples who, in contrast to couples in earlier decades, reported the highest marital and sexual satisfaction. In fact, this is the only group among which the frequency of sexual intercourse has increased since the early 90s. In our new study, we confirmed that egalitarian sharing of tasks has become more important for relationship quality. In 1992, the division of tasks mattered little for couples’ well-being. By 2006, couples who equally shared tasks demonstrated clear advantages over couples where one partner shouldered the load.
As it turns out, though, not all housework is created equal. Our new study reveals that some tasks are more closely associated with relationship quality than others.
For contemporary men, sharing shopping with their partner seems to be a turn on. Men who shared the shopping for their household not only reported greater sexual and relationship satisfaction than men who did the majority of this work, but also greater satisfaction than men whose partner did the majority of shopping. For cleaning and laundry, men reported lower relationship and sexual satisfaction and more discord when they did the majority of these tasks, but they were just as satisfied when these tasks were shared as when their partner did them.
For women, the shared task that mattered most for their satisfaction with their relationship was dishwashing. As of 2006, women who found themselves doing the lion’s share of dishwashing reported significantly more relationship discord, lower relationship satisfaction, and less sexual satisfaction than women who split the dishes with their partner. Sharing responsibility for dishwashing was the single biggest source of satisfaction for women among all the household tasks, and a lack of sharing of this task the single biggest source of discontent.
One overarching pattern that emerged from our data is that the more common it is to share a task, the more damaging to relationship quality it is for just one partner to shoulder responsibility for it. This is why shopping and dishwashing appear to matter so much for relationship quality. It seems individuals and couples take stock of their arrangements in comparison to those around them, and those assessments of relative advantage or disadvantage come to shape their feelings about their arrangements and their relationships overall. This suggests that as the sharing of other tasks becomes more common, the benefits of sharing — and the costs of not sharing — increase. Such a pattern sounds less like a movement undergoing a stall and more like one that is continuing to build.
This post initially appeared as a briefing paper for the Council on Contemporary Families.
Bianchi, S. M., Sayer, L. C., Milkie, M. A., & Robinson, J. P. (2012). Housework: Who did, does or will do it, and how much does it matter?. Social Forces, 91(1), 55-63.
Glynn, Sarah Jane. 2012. The New Breadwinners: 2010 Update Rates of Women Supporting Their Families Economically Increased Since 2007. Center For American Progress. Washington DC.
Pew Research Center. 2014. Growing Number of Dads Home with the Kids: Biggest increase among those caring for family. Retrieved on March 15th fromhttp://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/06/05/growing-number-of-dads-home-with-the-kids/
Shu, X., & Meagher, K. D. (2018). Beyond the Stalled Gender Revolution: Historical and Cohort Dynamics in Gender Attitudes from 1977 to 2016. Social Forces, 96, 1243-1274.