July 6, 2017

Dr Gigi Foster and Dr Leslie Stratton have been investigating the division of household labour, how this is negotiated and changed by couples from year to year, and the resulting satisfaction of each partner.

Doing the household chores is generally considered to be a necessary but unenjoyable task that takes a big chunk of time, and still the burden falls disproportionately on women. Over time, family members establish routines, or behavioural norms, as to who does what with regards to this unpaid work. Inevitably, partners will draw comparisons to broader society’s (everyone else’s) social norms, possibly resulting in an element of dissatisfaction with ‘their lot’.

In their working paper on the topic, Foster and Stratton examine the influence of household and couple characteristics on how housework is apportioned between the male and female members of a mixed-gender couple, and then in turn how housework allocation is related to satisfaction. Household characteristics such as the number and ages of children in the home, the marital status of the couple, and whether adults or disabled people are living in the home, plus individual descriptors – such as age, education, and hours spent in paid employment – are some of the factors influencing how much time each member of a couple spends doing housework.”

As the authors state, ‘Because women around the globe, on average, shoulder a disproportionate share of housework (OECD 2011), housework itself is arguably a more salient force in women’s lives than in men’s – driving more basic everyday decisions, taking up more conscious attention, and perhaps for these reasons creating more stress.’

Just as an aside, Foster and Stratton point to prior work by Sabino Kornrich, Julie Brines, and Katrina Leupp (2012) that reported both men and women in couples whose domestic chore allocation runs more strongly along traditional gender lines report higher sexual frequency than other couples. This implies that those with more egalitarian allocations have less sex.’ If true, could this be because breaking the traditional norms leads to less satisfaction?

In stage one of Foster and Stratton’s paper, they divide the housework time into predictable (expected) and unpredictable portions, as in the amount of housework that ‘should’ be done by each partner, to use as a benchmark level against which each may compare their actual performance. In stage two, they use these two parts of housework to predict each partner’s assessment of how fair the division of housework actually is, to check that the procedure in stage 1 delivered a residual component of housework associated with a notion of `fairness’ in people’s minds (it was). Then, in stage three, the authors examine the association between the predicted and residual housework measures created in stage 1 and three different satisfaction measures.

In their working paper, Foster and Stratton state that they ‘are the first to use models of housework time to generate measures of social norms related to housework that are then linked to satisfaction measures’.

And their general conclusion? ‘In a more general sense, women want their men to conform somewhat to social stereotypes in regard to time spent on housework, even if in a more immediate or narrow sense they are more satisfied when their partners shoulder more of the housework burden than society expects. When he exceeds housework norms, she is happier with housework allocations, but less happy in broader dimensions.’

It seems women want their men to help, but they want them to conform to social stereotypes, too.

You can read the working paper ‘What women want (their men to do): housework and satisfaction in Australian households’ here.

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