Work-life balance: Honey, I shrunk the housework

How chores are renegotiated after status changes in paid jobs

It turns out those bargaining skills that can help earn a promotion at work are also pretty handy for deciding who should sweep the floor or cook dinner – according to new research.

By turning the focus from paid work to who cleans the kitchen, two economists have found the dynamics of the household roster are complex and can involve some strongly held beliefs about gender roles.

In fact, spending more time at the office or even losing your job doesn't always mean a change in who does the basic housework, according to Gigi Foster, an associate professor at UNSW Business School, and Leslie Stratton, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Do Significant Labour Market Events Change Who Does the Laundry? Work, Chore Allocation and Power in Australian Households.

Their analysis reveals that in some homes when a man loses his job he does less housework, not more, which is "counter-intuitive" says Foster, who is fascinated with the topic both personally and professionally.

"There are a lot of different ways in which couples split housework between themselves," she says.

"Because my husband works from home, it makes sense for him to cook dinner. He also does the kid schlepping and the laundry, and I do the cleaning. I've wondered about how other couples arrange things and why they don't specialise more. And as an economist, I also see an opportunity cost factor in these decisions."

The fact that women spend substantially more time on housework even in households in which the partners appear to have equal economic power suggests that something about gender is also important, as the study points out.

And as the findings reveal, assumptions that time spent on housework is strictly proportional to hours spent at the paid coalface also need to be examined.

'Our analysis found that female promotion tends to lead her to do a little less housework, and him more'


Promotion or termination

To get more insights into the way housework and paid work demands are managed within couples, Foster and her co-author turned to data collected by the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey.

Estimates based on HILDA data quoted in the study found the average time spent on housework (which does not include childcare) was 22.7 hours a week at the household level, 6 hours for men, and 16.6 hours for women.

An unexpected termination or a promotion were also clearly measured in the data and seemed like a logical thing to look at given the researchers' interest in markers of economic power, Foster says.

In the past 30 years there seems to have been a change in how responsibility is allocated for domestic duties, she adds. It's possible that more co-operative bargaining is used today to come to an agreement about housework duties when there's a change in job status, relative to the older traditional norm of the wife doing it all regardless of paid labour responsibilities.

"A promotion signals you have more opportunities in the labour market that might change your bargaining power within the household, and you might use that increased power to get out of more housework," Foster says.

"And if you get terminated you might find yourself on the opposite end of the spectrum, and you might end up having to take on more housework. Consistent with this, our analysis found that female promotion tends to lead her to do a little less housework, and him more."

Doing gender

But that's only in some households, with educational levels making a surprisingly big difference.

"We see this in the main results. But in the less-educated households, when he loses his job she ends up doing more housework. That result is counter-intuitive: he's losing economic power," Foster says.

"But there's been a theory in sociology that when women see a situation in which gender roles are not being met by them or their partner, they psychologically right that inconsistency through their behaviour. 

"It's called 'doing gender'. In this case, when the 'male breadwinner' in a less-educated household falters, his wife may compensate for this perceived violation of gender norms by doing more housework.

"We found that men pitch in around the house more when she gets a promotion in more educated households, but in less educated households this male compensation effect isn't significant: he doesn't pick up the slack. So if you have more power as a woman you may not be able to use that as a housework bargaining chip in your partnership if you both are less educated."

It's also apparent there are a lot of different ways couples split housework between themselves, Foster says. It seems likely some sort of conversation is happening, explicitly or implicitly, that is taking into account both power relations and other factors – which could include the availability/affordability of outsourcing.

The bargaining that occurs in some homes might result in hiring a cleaner or getting more takeaway meals – or even becoming less house proud.

"Dual earners are already using outsourcing because that's often needed to make a dual-earner household function. But there's a limit to how much of that you can do. Someone has to do the laundry and sweep the floor," she points out.

"We wanted to see if on average housework time is going up or down, which could be related to decisions about how much housework to outsource. It could be that there has been excess time spent on housework prior to a promotion.

"Then if you get promoted and have an increased commitment to paid work, your notions of what is optimal or acceptable in housework may relax. That is part of what may be going on: as you commit more of your time and identity to paid work, you stop caring as much about whether your kitchen floor is clean enough to eat off, or whether all your meals are home-cooked."

'At the classic Aussie barbecue, just like at the classic American one, the men are cooking on the grill and the women are in the house making the salads'


A different dynamic

There's more work to be done to find out whether male and female roles exhibit systematic patterns in relation to a broader array of unpaid labour, Foster says. As reported in the HILDA survey, women perform cooking, cleaning, and laundry tasks more than men, with the gender difference being greatest in cleaning.

And anecdotally, she points out, we do still have broad gender roles when it comes to some other types of unpaid labour.

"At the classic Aussie barbecue, just like at the classic American one, the men are cooking on the grill and the women are in the house making the salads. This is true even in educated circles. Part of that is the inside/outside split. Likewise, women don't generally work on the car: it's the man who will get his hands oily and look under the hood.

"There are some unpaid labour tasks associated with the household that it seems he does, rather than her."

There's plenty more scope for research in this area and Foster is already turning her attention to how satisfaction relates to the allocation of work in the household.

Meanwhile, even though the barbecue stereotype seems unlikely to shift soon, the findings reflect a quite different dynamic generating the chores roster from what was in operation just a few decades ago, and that's cause for optimism. 

"I was heartened to see that the cross-spousal support is happening, and that it is responding in a logical way to the power and economic realities," she says.

Today, the data also shows, there is less housework going on in general in dual-earner households, whether they are outsourcing or not.

"Women's increased commitment to paid work has brought change for a lot of societies," Foster says.

"If you can give women more opportunities in the labour market, then our research shows that this might help them to get out from under their disproportionate housework burdens as well." 


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