Men, Women, and Housework: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

5 years ago

A lot has changed since America began its long recovery from that weird time we call “The Fifties.”  In those days, the ideal marriage consisted of a perfectly gendered division of labor. A husband worked a full day for pay, but enjoyed an evening of pure leisure; his wife tended to the house and children, supported by the soft cushion of his income. 

Of course, household labor was never quite so perfectly divided, not even among White middle-class families.  Still, the ‘50s was a uniquely gendered time when in theory, if not in practice, men never resented carrying their families’ financial burden and women never worried their pretty little heads about stifled career ambitions. 

Credit Image: 1950s Unlimited on Flickr

It’s different today.  The vast majority of families need two incomes to make ends meet and, it turns out, most women like to work.  Meanwhile, the majority of people under 35 prefer flexible gender roles to the rigid ones of the ‘50s.  So, how has the division of household labor changed?  The news is good, bad, and ugly.


The Good

According to sociologist Suzanne Bianchi and her colleagues, who crunched the data on American time use, men today do twice as much housework and three times as much childcare as their counterparts in 1965.  Meanwhile, women are working outside the home almost three times as many hours as they did in the ‘50s. 

Whereas conservative commentators often suggest that this has led to the neglect of children, both parents are, in fact, spending more time with kids than they have since the 1965.  They’ve squeezed a little bit of that extra time out of leisure and sleep, but mostly it’s come out of housework.  Women spend almost half as much time on household chores as they did in the ‘60s.

These shifts have led to a convergence in how much time men and women spend in paid and unpaid work combined.  Mothers spend about 53 hours a week on non-sleep, non-leisure activities, fathers spend about 54 (source).


The Bad

While moms and dads are working equally hard, women are disproportionately doing the less valued work.  Mothers are engaged in paid work, on average, only 21 hours a week, compared to fathers’ 37, and spend 32 hours a week on domestic work, compared to fathers’ 17. 

This translates into a loss of social esteem.  We still describe domestic work as NOT-work.  “Oh, so you don’t work?” a housewife might be asked.  A woman at my most recent high school reunion used the word “just” to describe what she was doing: “I’m just a housewife these days,” she said.  Truly, we continue to trivialize and devalue the hard work of raising children and organizing a home.

And, because this work is unpaid, earns no benefits, and brings no social security savings, it makes women economically vulnerable.  Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett found that women who take less than a year off for childrearing earned 11% less than women who took no time off, while women who took three years or more out of the workforce lost 37% of their income.   In addition to time off, every year that she works part-time or with less gusto than her husband translates into relative economic vulnerability. In fact, being a mother (but not being a father) is the largest risk factor for both bankruptcy and poverty.

The Ugly

Women can escape this loss of social esteem and financial security by “outsourcing” their domestic duties.  Essentially all women do this at least a little bit.  They use day care, buy prepared or semi-prepared meals, or pay for bi-monthly housekeeping.  This is part of how they’re spending so many fewer hours on housework and so many more with their kids.

Unfortunately, and this is where things get really ugly, the people paid to do this work are almost always other women, women who are less economically privileged than those who hire them.  Among paid work, domestic jobs are some of the least secure. Housekeeping, childcare, and nannying are some of the worst jobs in America: inflexible, poorly paid, with little or no benefits, and almost no chance for advancement or promotion.

Mothers can hire “mothers helpers,” then, in order to stave off the social and economic costs of a heavier responsibility for childcare and housework, but in doing so they’re not erasing the disadvantage, they’re simply pushing it off onto other already-more-disadvantaged women.  This is bad.  It led New York Times writer Annie Murphy Paul to ask:  “Are we achieving more egalitarian marriages [for the middle class] at the cost of a more egalitarian society?”  The answer is “yes” and we need to do better.


In sum, we’ve come a long way from the 1950s breadwinner/housewife marriage that drove women to tranquilizers and men to Playboy magazine, but we’ve still some way to go. First and foremost, we need to learn to value domestic work, both in our hearts and with our wallets.  If we do the former, we might see more fathers opting into a greater percentage of housework and childcare.  This would make for the more even, non-gendered division of labor that both men and women say they want.  If we do the latter, the disproportionately poor, racial minority, and immigrant women who do domestic work might be uplifted by these job opportunities instead of held down. 


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the principle writer forSociological Images. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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