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.