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Bring Home the Bacon. And Cook It. 

A number of theories attempt to explain why married women tend to do more housework than their husbands (note: none of them are called the “Men Are Lazy Theory”). Among the explanations offered is the “power,” or “bargaining,” perspective. Here, so the argument goes, people who make more money outside the home can essentially get by with doing less inside the home because their extra income ‘allots’ them that luxury (i.e., I bring home the bacon. You cook it. Even-Steven). This theory holds up when the husband makes more money, but the theory falls on its face when you look at families where the wife brings in more than 50% of the household income. In these cases, the women actually do more housework than women in equally-paid marriages, whereas the men do less than their lower-paid counterparts. That’s no typo. The thinking is that because these wife$>husband$ marriages violate traditional gender norms, the women and men in these marriages try to ‘fit back in’ by acting more stereotypically in their homes, or what researchers refer to as doing gender through housework

It’s an interesting theory, but one that has received only mixed support…until now. Schneider1 analyzed data from over 22,000 married women and men. Each individual completed a “diary” several times over the course of four years (2003 thru 2007). Each diary asked participants to indicate how they spent their time over the preceding 24-hour period, including how much time they spent on: “(a) cleaning, laundry, sewing, (b) meal preparation and clean up, (c) shopping, (d) interior maintenance, (e) exterior maintenance, (f) lawn, garden, and yard care, (g) auto maintenance and repair, (h) household management, and (i) care of pets.” It’s important to note that these activities include a range of stereotypical ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ activities; such an approach was often neglected in past work. Thus, these diaries serve as a snapshot of a typical week and provide a fairly solid gauge of how much work men and women do at home.

Women, not surprisingly, did more housework than men (18 vs. 10 hours per week, on average). But did the degree to which men and women ‘bring home the bacon’ affect how much housework they do? Sort of. Men’s income didn’t affect how much time they dedicated to housework, unless they were unemployed. Unemployed men put in more time around the house (because they have more time), but employed men, regardless of their income, consistently did less around the house compared to women. Women’s work vs. housework balance, on the other hand, was more complicated. Specifically, as women’s share of income approached their husbands’, they tended to put in less time around the house (presumably because they have less time), but that only held up until the point that women started earning more than their husbands. As soon as women started earning more than 50% of the household income, the hours they dedicated to housework increased (researchers refer to this as a U-shaped relationship). In other words, it does appear that women, but not men, “do gender” through housework when their relative income makes them the primary breadwinner in the household. Why?  Schneider suggests that today's "...women find themselves at once pursuing demanding and financially rewarding careers while still trying to satisfy a cultural family schema that emphasizes the performance of tasks such as housework. These women encounter a tension that is not experienced by men."

It would seem, then, that when the Beastie Boys sangGirls - to do the dishes; Girls - to clean up my room; Girls - to do the laundry…” they might have considered adding “Girls – to make more money than I do.” That final phrase would have carried the social commentary to the next level.

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1Schneider, D. (2011). Market earnings and household work: New tests of gender performance theory. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73, 845-860. 

Dr. Tim Loving - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving's research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He is an Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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Reader Comments (2)

My initial thoughts about the "Why?" aspect of the data that shows women who earn more income than their spouse do more chores, is that individual traits might play a role. Consider personality characteristics and traits that may be associated with a woman who attains a moderate or sizable income (or 50% of household income). Perhaps she has traits of perfectionism, OCPD, liking to be in control, or a strong desire to have things a certain way. Perhaps there is the super woman idea that she can do it all. The traits that helped her succeed financially may also be reflected in the home, and therefore she ends up doing a greater amount of housework in order to maintain her home for personal reasons, as opposed to conforming to a gender role norm.

A last thought is if this study controlled for the level of cleanliness in the home? For instance, were the households with a higher dual income cleaner, less clean, or the same level as lower income or single income families?

September 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSKellogg

Good points. Regarding the 'perfectionism' third variable you propose, my initial thought is that may provide some explanation for the increase in housework for women above the 50% mark, but I'm not sure it works as well for those below the 50% mark. Why would women who earn, for example, 45% of the household income put in LESS time than women who earn 35% of the household income (given your explanation)? Of course, it is also possible that the relevant moderators change on either side of the 50% of household income line.

There were no controls for household cleanliness. In this case, the researcher was using a large, publicly available dataset. Would be a fun follow-up: to include home visits.

Tim Loving

September 30, 2011 | Registered CommenterScience of Relationships
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