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There’s An Easy Way to Fix the Gender Gap At Home

Housewife doing the laundry, 1954.Housewife doing the laundry, 1954.
Housewife doing the laundry while smoking, 1954. Photograph by SSPL via Getty Images

The headline at the New York Times carried the latest dispatch in the gender wars: “Men do more at home, but not as much as they think.” Writer Claire Cain Miller cited recent Pew Research Center data finding that men and women differ on whether they split domestic work equally. Men think they do, but time diary data show mothers do more. One study of dual income couples found that, before having children, men and women both did about 14.5 hours of housework a week.

After having children, women’s domestic work totals rose much more than men’s. Mothers spent an additional 3 hours a day on home and childcare, while fathers spent one hour and 45 minutes more.

Miller argued that this gap has larger consequences. “The results offer one reason that the gender revolution in the workplace has stalled in many ways — particularly around the time women start having children. Despite enormous advances for women in the labor market, they still shoulder much more responsibility at home.”

Men can focus at work; women cut back to make everything fit.

The usual rallying cry from research like this is that gender equality requires men to do more meal planning and vacuuming. But there’s a much easier way to even up the hours available to work. Rather than convincing men to do more, women could simply do less. That’s definitely true for housework, and might be possible for childcare too.

Here’s the thing for housework: there is no correct amount to do. The New York Times article cites research finding that women did 31.9 hours of housework weekly in 1965, and 17.9 hours in 2008. Men’s totals rose in those 43 years, but not enough to close the gap. Yet this decline did not lead to widespread disaster. I recently undertook a time diary study of women who earned at least $100,000 a year, and had kids at home. The time spent on chores and errands ranged from 2 hours per week to 25 hours per week. This difference could not be explained solely by who had housekeepers or husbands who stayed home with the kids. It was a function of preference (to put a positive spin on it) or problematic stories women tell themselves (in a more negative view).

As I have interviewed women about their time choices, I have come across all sorts of these problematic narratives. Some women tell me they cannot go to sleep with toys on the floor or dishes in the sink. I probe: will there be an 11 p.m. home inspection? No one has ever said she’s expecting one, which suggests the futility of this belief. The toys will just come out again the next morning, but the hour spent picking them up is gone for good. I read a story in a women’s magazine recently in which readers reported some of the best advice they’d been given. One entry: do a load of laundry daily. If you believe that to be sage advice, then you’re going to have high housework standards. High standards require a lot of time. That’s all fine as an individual choice.

But is it fair to hold one’s partner to a much higher standard than he (or she) believes is necessary?

I’d say no, and that goes for some aspects of childcare too. Small children do not need to be bathed nightly. There are households where Mom seethes because she’s bathing the kids six times a week, and her husband does it once. But what if he believes that baths should be a twice-weekly occurrence? In other words, he’s doing exactly half of what he thinks needs to be done. People can disagree with that, but if men are realizing they cannot dictate exactly how the workplace operates, then mothers cannot insist that a carefully supervised art project is a better use of the evening than dad sitting on the stairs of the basement reading a newspaper while the kids throw balls at each other. In the long run, none of it really matters anyway.

To be sure, changing narratives is hard. In a 2013 New York Times story called “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In,” the lead anecdote was about a woman who at one point earned $500,000 a year, but claimed that “the stresses of life in a two-career household put an overwhelming strain on her marriage. There were ugly fights with her husband about laundry.” Think about that. For far less than half a million dollars a year, they could have hired a full-time housekeeper. Or bought new underwear, socks, and towels daily. But as long as women hold onto the narrative that domestic work is what a good mother spends her time doing, and earning the cash to support her children is somehow transgressive, the gender revolution will stay stalled. That’s no matter what men do.