Division of Labour

It’s something that I think all couples, and in particular, all parents grapple with: how to fairly divide up the housework. I know that some of my friends have also written about it.

One of the best things I’ve ever read about the division of parenting and housework between the sexes was on the New York Times, and if you’re interested in the topic, I recommend you go read it right now. It’s well researched, balanced and insightful.

And in that article, there’s a reference to something that blew my mind. It’s research done by Professor Esther Rothblum at the San Diego State University. Rothblum’s work, published in 2005, compared the amount of hours spent on housework between the sexes, taking into account whether they were gay or straight.

Given that the typical study into sharing of housework finds that men spend much less time doing housework than women, I expected that heterosexual men also on average spend less time doing housework than homosexual women, or even homosexual men. However, that’s not what Rothblum found when she looked at gay and straight couples’ division of labour.

The research concluded that on average 6-10 hrs of housework per week was performed each by lesbians, gay men, and straight men, and 11-20 hrs per week for straight women. (“6-10 hrs” and “11-20 hrs” were different responses in a survey.) A corollary would be that heterosexual couples spend more time in total on housework than gay couples.

Why might this be so? It’s not clear. Rothblum doesn’t go into that aspect in her study, as she seems more interested in the relative share between partners than the absolute numbers.

However, some possible explanations that come to mind are:

  • There may be some kind of cultural pressure that applies in the female heterosexual community, but not in the homosexual community or the male heterosexual community, that requires women to keep their house to a higher standard. (But can such communities be distinct enough for this effect to have significant force?)
  • When straight couples have children, it is known to reinforce traditional gender roles, resulting in women spending more time on household duties than they did prior to children. Perhaps gay couples are less likely to have children and this reinforcing effect is then less likely to occur.
  • Straight men may be, on average, so bad at housework that more time is required by straight women to keep a house to the same standard as that of a gay couple’s, even when straight men spend the same amount of time doing it as, say, gay men. (But if they are “practicing” for the same amount of time each week, why would they be worse?)
  • Men are likely to overestimate the amount of time spent doing housework on a survey, and surveys were used in this research. But does this apply only to straight men and not to gay men?
  • About 200 people in each category were surveyed, and perhaps not enough people were included to get a representative result of the whole country. Although, the women’s results were statistically significant (p < 0.0005).

Still, this is a counter-intuitive finding, and it would be interesting to see if other research reinforces the conclusion. If valid, it may go some way toward defending (heterosexual) men against the charge of not pulling their weight around the home.

But in any case, these results describe average situations across a large number of couples. There’s no “right” figure, of course. Every couple needs to find their own balance, taking into account their own unique circumstances. Which is why, I guess, it’s interesting for us all to write about it.

11 thoughts on “Division of Labour”

  1. Regarding Rothblum’s study:

    1. I’m annoyed she didn’t pay more attention to the effects of having children. This seems like a pretty severe omission.

    Note that the gay couples were _much_ less likely to have kids.

    2. The other thing to note is that “gay women” includes both the primary and secondary earners in each couple. “Straight women” includes only one of those, and in fact is comparatively skewed towards secondary earners (around 50% were not full-time, by far the least of any group). This makes them hard to compare in terms of the all important “laziness factor” :)

    (That leads to the question why women are less often employed, which is interesting in its own right. Culture undoubtedly plays a role. Some analysis in terms of children would be insightful here too.)

    As for the NYTimes article, I have so much to say about it that I think I’ll reserve it for a post of my own.

  2. Having read through Rothblum’s paper more carefully, I think I misrepresented her a bit in point 2.

    It’s true that some of her tabulated data are meaningless (when you ask both halves of a lesbian couple what proportion of the housework they do, and then average that, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get 50%. You should be even less surprised when you get 55%, as she did.) But her later statistical analysis takes into account income difference, which addresses the problem to some extent.

    In fact, she’s really looking at the question in my parenthetical remark. The statistics show that heterosexual couples are more likely to follow traditional gender roles than homosexual couples, which is not particularly surprising. Why can’t open-minded heteros can’t escape these roles?

    This is where I really wish she’d introduced children into the analysis. She remarks that women’s labour inequality correlates with total amount of labour. I think it’s fair to say that having children also correlates with total amount of labour. This would match your suggestion that having kids is a major factor in reinforcing gender roles.

  3. Great comments.

    Yes, it’s strange that she didn’t bring the issue of being a parent “out” more in the analysis, given that she seems to have collected enough information to know whether the trial participants had children or not.

    Although, despite gay couples not being broken out by role more clearly, you can look at the couple as a whole and see that straight couples spend 17-30 hrs / wk on housework while gay couples spend 12-20 hrs / wk. Where does all the extra hetero housework come from?

    Oh, and another possible explanation of the result is quantizing effects may exaggerate the appearance of differences between the groups, e.g. if they fall right at the edge of one of the “6-10 hrs” or “11-20 hrs” buckets. So, it might not be as stark as it appears.

    I’d be very interested to read your eventual post on the NYT article.

    1. Here’s a thought. Perhaps that disparity in the total amount of work that gay/lesbian couples do compared to straight couples is more a factor of social pressures that gay and lesbian couples face. Perhaps, without stereotyping, they tend to live in less suburban areas, consequently in smaller houses, closer to peers with common values.

  4. Remember that hetero couples have kids. (At least, they do so much more often than the gay couples.) From my personal experience, that could _easily_ account for an extra 5-10hrs of hetero housework per week.

    1. Huh. Yes, of course.

      I had hoped that I’d found another interesting stat, but apparently not. I would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for those pesky kids.

      (Apologies to Hanna Barbera)

  5. Spend a week watching ads. Take a note of how many of them are about cleaning products or other ‘household necessities’. Notice how many of the people spruiking said products are NOT apparently straight, white women, who are in relationships and have children. Might give you a clue to the culture thing ;) (In other words, we absolutely do have ridiculous societally-imposed expectations about housework that apply most heavily to married women and marketers of course know how to exploit and expand that to make as much money as possible. No one is asking a bloke “What does your loo say about you?” are they? And apparently, no one is asking a lesbian either.)

    I think you and Bob are right about the likely impact of children. But I do recall reading something a while back that showed that the gender disparity re: housework tends to kick in after marriage, not necessarily after children. And, in Australia at least, it doesn’t ease up when women work more hours.

    Bob asked “Why can’t open-minded heteros can’t escape these roles?” Personally, I think the answer is because people keep making this a women’s issue. I know that women spend a lot of time talking about this (and other gender-role, equity issues). I know a lot of us put a lot of emotional energy to try to change the status quo in our own homes, because it generally falls on us to do it. When blokes are sitting around the table at a work lunch talking about how THEY can make housework more equitable and why this would be good for their families and society … we’ll see change. I’m not holding my breath I’m afraid!

  6. @Spilt Milk – interesting points!

    Advertisers use such spruiking, because apparently it sells product. The fact it works at all seems most bizarre! Why don’t both men and women laugh off some of these campaigns as idiotic? How can anyone believe that friends will judge them by whether their toilet sparkles or not? (Especially if they have children.)

    I also recall a claim about the *relative* time spent on household tasks changing significantly after marriage (as a proxy for people moving in together, I assume). However, it is the *absolute* number of hours here that I find interesting, allowing external comparisons. So, I wonder if the total number of hours also goes up after marriage, or only after children.

  7. Spilt Milk says: “When blokes are sitting around the table at a work lunch talking about how THEY can make housework more equitable.. we’ll see change.”

    This is really the question I’ve been searching for an answer to (like in my rambling blog post which Andrew linked to above). Blokes just don’t care (as much, on the whole). And caring is doing.

    Why not? Is it natural or cultural? It seems to be pretty universal in the industrialized world.

    Andrew says one solution is to encourage women to care less. But I reckon that Aussie women already care much less than in many other places in the industrialized world, certainly less than they used to. Men still manage to care less than that. Is our only hope to cross our fingers and wait for the blokes to change, as Milk suggests?

  8. Well, I don’t think I’d phrase it that way. Certainly, if women in general feel levels of societal pressure to maintain a house to a higher standard than they would without that pressure, then there’s a problem. Both they and the wider community would benefit from freeing them up from spending time on such activities.

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