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How should contributions to household chores be measured?
Maybe men aren't shirkers
A recent paper in Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, US and Chinese preschoolers normalize household labor inequality, adds a new dimension to the question of who does more household chores by adding the perspective of children:
Even at the youngest ages and in both cultural contexts, children’s reports largely matched their parents’, with both populations reporting that mothers do the majority of household labor. Both children and parents judged this to be generally fair, suggesting that children are observant of the gendered distribution of labor within their households, and show normalization of inequality from a young age.
Now, any quick Google search will find various statements about the inequality of women doing more household tasks. Despite this disparity, the study also discovers that adults believe it to be fair:
Adults also normalized the inequality—caregivers found this inequality to be fair
This appears to be an inconsistency. There is a significant disparity, but the adults involved believe it is fair. First, I don't believe this paper quantifies an inequity. Second, even if there is inequity in what is assessed (an attempt at time spent on tasks), this is not the only measurement. Here are four more to think about: risk, energy, value, and satisfaction.
Here are the fourteen survey questions for this paper:
Please estimate the current amount that you and your spouse handled the following responsibilities at your home. Please answer as honestly as possible.
General Cleaning, Cooking meals, Washing dishes/cleaning up after meals, Doing laundry, Taking out the trash, Maintenance/ Fixing things around the house, Preparing meals and snacks for child, Bathing child, Diapering or helping child go to the bathroom, Takes care of child when they are sick, Who helps put child to bed every night, Who plays with child, Who takes care of/watches child during the day, Who gives the child rides to school and activities.
Each of these questions has the same possible response:
(1) Completely mother (2) Mostly Mother (3) Both mother and father equally (4) Mostly father (5) Completely father (6) Other: ____________
In other words, for this study, they did not measure the time spent on the tasks, only who completed them most of the time. I'm not sure how this implies that there is significant inequality. For the sake of argument, suppose they did measure time, which I believe they are attempting to do, and that the mother devotes more time to these duties than the father. In fact, the BLS does conduct a time use survey, and figures from 2022 show men working 1.51 hours per day and women working 2.26 (see table 1).
However, time is not the only indicator, and I'll discuss four others: risk, energy, value, and satisfaction. Before I go any further, I'd like to point out that I believe there are regional distinctions as well as housing disparities (some of my examples will demonstrate my northern bias). In other words, there is a difference in household tasks depending on whether you rent an apartment in a city, own a residence in a city, own a home in the suburbs with some property, or live in a more rural home with a lot of property, and the BLS survey lacks this level of detail.
The list of duties for this article is entirely indoors, with the exception of putting out the garbage, which requires a journey outside the house; nevertheless, if you own a home, there are other chores in which males take on more risk. For example, if I told you that someone had been injured or died while shoveling snow, would you say it was a man or a woman? Here are the findings of a 2017 Canadian study:
In all, 128 073 individual hospital admissions and 68 155 deaths due to MI were included in the analyses. The likelihood of MI was increased the day after a snowfall among men but not among women. Compared with 0 cm, 20 cm of snowfall was associated with an OR of 1.16 for hospital admission (95% CI 1.11–1.21) and 1.34 for death (95% CI 1.26–1.42) due to MI the following day among men. Corresponding ORs among women were 1.01 (95% CI 0.95–1.07) and 1.04 (95% CI 0.96–1.13). Similar but smaller associations were observed for snowfall duration (0 h v. 24 h) and MI.
More generally, here are the results from the paper Unintentional fatal injuries arising from unpaid work at home (2003)
There were 296 home duties deaths over the four year period. Most (83%) deaths were of males, and males had 10 times the risk of fatal injury compared with females. The most common activities resulting in fatal injuries were home repairs, gardening, and car care. The highest risk activities (deaths per million persons per year per hour of activity) were home repairs (49), car care (20), home improvements (18), and gardening (16). Being hit by inadequately braced vehicles during car maintenance, falls from inadequately braced ladders, contact with fire and flames while cooking, and contact with electricity during maintenance were the most common injury scenarios.
I had a difficult time obtaining injury or death data at home that resulted from housework rather than more general incidents. Still, I believe there is a clear case to be made that when anything needs to be done around the house that involves a higher risk of harm or death, males are far more likely to be the ones to do it. So, should the time spent doing something riskier be counted as the same as the time spent doing nothing risky at all? In other words, is it a one-for-one replacement for shoveling snow and vacuuming? If so, this appears to be a lousy deal for the snow shoveler.
Not all activities require the same amount of energy. The best chart I could find at the moment comes from PscyhNewsDaily (9/14/2023), but the reference is to a 2006 study that is behind a paywall. Here is the data:
Men spend twice as much time (0.24 hours per day vs. 0.13 hours per day) on lawn and garden care, according to the BLS time use survey (table 1). Women, on the other hand, spend twice as much time (0.87 to 0.42 hours per day) on food preparation and cleanup. The time commitment for these two categories is 0.66 hours for males and 1 hour for females. The men contribute 66% of the time. However, if we assume 387 calories for lawnmower pushing and 176 for meal preparation, we get 166.80 calories for males (0.24*387+0.42*176) and 203.43 for females, indicating that men provide 82% of the calories women provide. This doesn’t make it equal, and there are only two categories, but it does show how a different measurement might change the story. I should mention that men are often heavier, so the calories used for each work would be higher, but we utilized the same calories for comparison.
We may extend this to include the energy expended at work. Should the fatigue of the workplace be considered in terms of responsibilities at home if both partners are working and one is swinging a hammer while the other works at a desk?
Should the cost of hiring someone to do the work determine the value of what each person does around the house? In an effort to do a fair and quick comparison, Angi.com prices household cleaning at $30–$50 per hour and the cost of a handyperson at $40–$140 per hour. Enough said, but note that I’m not advocating for this.
Will you automatically choose chore B if chore A requires 1.5 hours and chore B requires only one hour? I think the task will determine it. In fact, this is where the negotiation process takes place. If one person generally likes to cook and really doesn’t want to shovel snow or cut the grass, they may consider it a good deal to cook even if more time is spent on the activity. Perhaps this explains why the adults in this study thought the household work distribution was equitable, along with some of the other variables I mentioned above.
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There are numerous ways to assess household tasks in a relationship, but it appears that most research focuses on time and concludes that men are shirking their responsibilities and women are allowing it to happen. I would argue that the dynamics are much more complex, and I provided a few different metrics here. There are probably others. I'd rather see deeper and more nuanced papers and studies than what looks to be advocacy. According to the study, for example:
Nonetheless, to be clear, our work cannot—and does not—make normative claims about what ought to happen within the family, nor about whether the inequality reported is, in fact, unfair.
I don’t think this statement reflects the title. The phrase “labor inequality” in the title is not neutral language. They further say:
Instead, we believe our work points to the critical value of discussing with young children about the structural, family, and personal causes of gendering of labor and provides evidence of preschool age as an appropriate developmental time window during which to do so. Without such discussion, young children may be left to infer their own pernicious biases and conclusions and may ultimately perpetuate these inequalities in their own and others’ futures.
This is not, once again, a neutral statement. It's probably a good thing to talk to children about who does what, and maybe it's a good idea to talk to children about agreements and choices rather than the gendering of labor. Furthermore, as I mentioned in Female vs. Male Grip Strength, this topic should incorporate gender disparities, such as men being typically stronger than women. This study, I'm guessing, did not have this in mind for the conversations.
Again, this is not a neutral statement. Talking to children about who does what is probably a good idea, and maybe it's a good idea to talk to children about negotiations and choices and less so about the gendering of labor. Further, maybe this discussion should include gender differences, such as men being generally stronger than women, as I noted in Female vs. Male Grip Strength. I’m going to guess this study didn’t have this in mind for the discussions.
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I'd rather know the truth and understand the world than always be right. I'm not writing to upset or antagonize anyone on purpose, though I guess that could happen. I welcome dissent and disagreement in the comments. We all should be forced to articulate our viewpoints and change our minds when we need to, but we should also know that we can respectfully disagree and move on. So, if you think something said is wrong or misrepresented, then please share your viewpoint in the comments.