Married mothers take on more housework even when they out-earn their husbands

April 26, 2022, 1:27 PM UTC
Mother talking on phone and holding baby
Married mothers who earn more than their husbands take on an even greater share of housework.
Cultura RM Exclusive/Frank Van Delft/Getty Images

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! President Biden chooses a nominee to serve as ambassador to Ukraine, Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter could affect the future of content moderation on the platform, and becoming a breadwinner comes with a caveat. Have a great Tuesday.

– Double duty. Changing gender norms around parenthood and work have allowed women to become breadwinners for their families. But some gender norms are particularly stubborn, as Joanna Syrda, a professor at the U.K.-based University of Bath School of Management recently discovered.

In her research, analyzing the relationship between spousal income and the division of housework between partners, Syrda examined more than 6,000 North American dual-earner, mixed-gender couples between 1999 and 2017. She found that as the gender pay gap closes between a husband and wife, the gender housework gap rises—with the woman taking on even more housework as she begins to outearn her husband. The surprising inverse correlation reflects deeply held beliefs about who should be a breadwinner and who should take care of the home, Syrda argues.

See the statistical analysis below from her study “Gendered Housework: Spousal Relative Income, Parenthood and Traditional Gender Identity Norms” published in the journal Work, Employment, and Society. The chart shows a mother’s housework decreasing from 18 to 14 hours a week as she goes from earning no income to about half the household income—and then ticking back up again to almost 16 hours as she exceeds her partner’s salary. The husband’s housework starts around six hours a week when he’s a father and the sole breadwinner, reaching a maximum of just under eight hours before declining as his wife takes on additional housework with her rising income.

It might sound counterintuitive that women breadwinners spend more time on household chores when they earn significantly more than their husbandsand worse still, the data doesn’t even account for gender gaps between time spent by mothers and fathers on childcare. Syrda speculates that heterosexual couples are, perhaps subconsciously, compensating for deviating from the male breadwinner norm. (Past research has shown that men are more likely to exhibit signs of “psychological distress” when their wife earns more money.)

“This is a non-traditional outcome in that she is earning more money than him,” Syrda says. “So to compensate for that, they [follow the norm] traditionally for housework.”

Syrda’s analysis brings to mind a 2019 study I covered for Fortune. Researchers found that married women did more housework than single moms—despite theoretically having a partner at home to share the load. They also found that “marriage remains a gendered institution that ratchets up the demand for housework and childcare through essentialist beliefs that women are naturally focused on home and hearth.”

The question, as Syrda frames it today, is what housework means to us. “Is housework just a sequence of tasks we perform?” she asks. “Or is it a way of constituting and enacting a gender?”

The combination of parenthood and marriage seems to be the defining element here: Syrda didn’t measure the same uptick in household chores for high-earning women who are not mothers. Similarly, the 2019 study focused on motherhood, measuring the difference in household chores for married and single mothers. Parenthood can have a “traditionalizing effect,” Syrda argues, causing even the most progressive of women to adjust their adherence to gender norms as they feel internal and external pressure to excel at motherhood.

By one measure, Syrda’s study could denote progress; there are enough women breadwinners in the dataset to come to these statistically significant conclusions. But it’s hard to celebrate women as their household’s primary financial provider when doing so comes with a performative obligation to do the dishes.

Emma Hinchliffe

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