A number of theories attempt to explain why married women tend to do more housework than their husbands (note: none of them are called the “Men Are Lazy Theory”). Among the explanations offered is the “power,” or “bargaining,” perspective. Here, so the argument goes, people who make more money outside the home can essentially get by with doing less inside the home because their extra income ‘allots’ them that luxury (i.e., I bring home the bacon. You cook it. Even-Steven). This theory holds up when the husband makes more money, but the theory falls on its face when you look at families where the wife brings in more than 50% of the household income. In these cases, the women actually do more housework than women in equally-paid marriages, whereas the men do less than their lower-paid counterparts. That’s no typo. The thinking is that because these wife$>husband$ marriages violate traditional gender norms, the women and men in these marriages try to ‘fit back in’ by acting more stereotypically in their homes, or what researchers refer to as doing gender through housework.
It’s an interesting theory, but one that has received only mixed support…until now. Schneider1 analyzed data from over 22,000 married women and men. Each individual completed a “diary” several times over the course of four years (2003 thru 2007). Each diary asked participants to indicate how they spent their time over the preceding 24-hour period, including how much time they spent on: “(a) cleaning, laundry, sewing, (b) meal preparation and clean up, (c) shopping, (d) interior maintenance, (e) exterior maintenance, (f) lawn, garden, and yard care, (g) auto maintenance and repair, (h) household management, and (i) care of pets.” It’s important to note that these activities include a range of stereotypical ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ activities; such an approach was often neglected in past work. Thus, these diaries serve as a snapshot of a typical week and provide a fairly solid gauge of how much work men and women do at home.
Women, not surprisingly, did more housework than men (18 vs. 10 hours per week, on average). But did the degree to which men and women ‘bring home the bacon’ affect how much housework they do? Sort of. Men’s income didn’t affect how much time they dedicated to housework, unless they were unemployed. Unemployed men put in more time around the house (because they have more time), but employed men, regardless of their income, consistently did less around the house compared to women. Women’s work vs. housework balance, on the other hand, was more complicated. Specifically, as women’s share of income approached their husbands’, they tended to put in less time around the house (presumably because they have less time), but that only held up until the point that women started earning more than their husbands. As soon as women started earning more than 50% of the household income, the hours they dedicated to housework increased (researchers refer to this as a U-shaped relationship). In other words, it does appear that women, but not men, “do gender” through housework when their relative income makes them the primary breadwinner in the household. Why? Schneider suggests that today’s “…women find themselves at once pursuing demanding and financially rewarding careers while still trying to satisfy a cultural family schema that emphasizes the performance of tasks such as housework. These women encounter a tension that is not experienced by men.”
It would seem, then, that when the Beastie Boys sang “Girls – to do the dishes; Girls – to clean up my room; Girls – to do the laundry…” they might have considered adding “Girls – to make more money than I do.” That final phrase would have carried the social commentary to the next level.
1Schneider, D. (2011). Market earnings and household work: New tests of gender performance theory. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73, 845-860.
Dr. Tim Loving – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving’s research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He is an Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
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