LCC Working Paper Series: 2017-09


Gigi Foster and Leslie S. Stratton

Non-technical Summary

Couples around the world spend a substantial amount of time on routine household chores that result in such important products as family meals, clean clothes, and comfortable living spaces. The burden of producing these goods around the world, and in Australia, has fallen disproportionately on women. However, most of the material objectives of housework can in principle be produced by anyone, regardless of gender; skill requirements are limited. Assuming that no one enjoys doing housework, the observed division of household labour is often portrayed by social scientists either as the result of a negotiation between the partners such that the more powerful partner is allocated less housework or as a function of gender role attitudes. Prior work using proxies for power and attitudes suggests that both of these explanations play a role.

Our contribution in this paper exploits rich longitudinal data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey that allow us to examine not how the time allocated to routine housework differs across couples, but how couples change their time allocation from year to year. We model these within-couple differences as a function of differences over time in household characteristics (including the number and ages of children; marital status; and the age, education, and disability status of each partner), residential characteristics, and survey year. Controlling for these factors, we focus on how couples’ housework time allocations respond to major labor market events – in particular job promotions and terminations –  which potentially alter the relative balance of economic power within the household, while also influencing household heads’ time availability. The more (less) time an individual (partner) spends in paid employment, the less time he/she spends on housework, but there is also evidence that following a promotion, women report less time on housework and their partner reports more, indicating that gender power relations also play a role. The effect of promotions may actually be understated as we also find evidence that dual earner households are more likely to outsource household production to the market – by hiring maids and purchasing meals.

Power dynamics cannot, however, explain all the results. Further results indicate that households holding more liberal gender role attitudes are more likely to adjust their housework time allocations after female promotion events. Supporting the sociological theory that partners may ‘do gender’, we also find that in households with more traditional gender role attitudes, his housework time falls while hers rises when he is terminated.

These results suggest that female advancement in the formal labour market can go partway towards creating a more equal division of labour in the home, although the impact is modest and concentrated in more highly-educated households. Policy makers interested in promoting a more equal distribution of labour within the household may want to support programs that imply or support more gender-neutral behavioural norms in regard to unpaid labour, perhaps coupled with implicit or explicit targeting of less-educated population subgroups.


June 6, 2017