By: Rebecca Horne, MSc., P.H.Ec.
Rebecca received her MSc in Family Sciences from the University of Alberta in 2017 and is currently a PhD student in Psychology at the University of Toronto. Her broad area of research is on romantic relationships and the individual, relational, and contextual factors that contribute to satisfying intimate ties and lasting love. Under this general area of interest, she is currently exploring how making sacrifices for an intimate partner (e.g., relocating for a partner’s job) impacts relationship functioning and how gender dynamics shape couple processes.
Imagine Stephanie and Scott—a married couple in their 20s with two children—who are fresh out of college and have recently secured jobs. They come home after a long day of work to a sink full of dishes, an overflowing laundry basket, and a hodgepodge of ingredients in the fridge to be transformed into a meal. They look at each other with dread and simultaneously exclaim, “it’s your turn!” So, whose turn is it? What exactly is going to determine whether Stephanie or Scott does this work?
Now, imagine this same scenario with the only difference being that Stephanie and Scott are in their 40s. They are well-established in their careers, earning high incomes, and no longer have children in the home. Who is going to make supper and do the laundry now? And are the reasons for doing so different than they were two decades ago?
Putting housework under the microscope
The division of household labour is certainly a contentious topic between romantic partners, and individuals may have their own lists for why it should be the other partners’ turn to do the dishes. Family scientists and sociologists have uncovered several factors1 that may be on these lists that influence how couples divvy up housework. These include time (e.g., Stephanie works fewer hours in paid employment so may have more time to do housework), money (e.g., Scott earns less money than Stephanie and feels obliged to take on more unpaid work in the home), and gender (e.g., Steph does the housework given traditional norms that frame women as so-called “skillful homemakers”).
However, we know little about how these factors will impact housework when partners are at different ages and stages in their lives. Put differently, are things like time, money, and gender equally important for explaining couples’ housework patterns at different life stages?
To tackle this question, my colleagues and I first compared how much men versus women contribute to housework at three different life stages2. Second, we explored how paid work hours, income (relative to one’s partner), marital status, raising children, and gender impacted housework involvement at these distinct stages.
We drew on data from the Edmonton Transitions Study, which has tracked the school-to-work and adolescence-to-adulthood transitions of nearly 1,000 Canadians for over three decades. We analyzed survey data from individuals in romantic relationships during three developmental periods: the transition to adulthood (age 25), young adulthood (age 32), and midlife (age 43).
From dish soap to data…
We found that regardless of age or life stage, women performed more housework than men. In addition, lower housework involvement was most consistently predicted by earning a greater share of income and being male at age 25; working longer hours and raising children (for men only) at age 32; and earning a greater share of income, working longer hours, and being male at age 43. Importantly, gender was the strongest contributor to housework responsibility both earlier and later in life.
In summary, time, money, and gender seem to be important for explaining the division of household labour, albeit to varying intensities depending on life stage. Nevertheless, the gendered nature of housework is apparent in how women consistently perform more housework than men. Overall, exploring housework patterns and predictors at several life stages paints a clearer picture of how men and women navigate the division of household labour at different developmental periods.
Our findings can be used by policymakers and employers to develop or alter laws, policies, and work environments in ways that promote men’s involvement in unpaid labour. Our results also suggest it would be important for couples therapists and educators to encourage partners to reflect on their particular life stage and how employment, earnings, and/or children may factor into their household decision making.
More generally, it might be helpful for you and your partner to explore your own (or shared) gendered assumptions surrounding housework; the foundations of these beliefs (e.g., family of origin, media, workplace norms); and whether these beliefs translate into housework strategies that work best for both of your preferences, paid work arrangements, and family requirements.
Happy dish washing!
1 Shelton, B. A., & John, D. (1996). The division of household labour. Annual Review of Sociology, 22, 299–322. doi:10.1146/ annurev.soc.22.1.299
2 Horne, R. M., Johnson, M. D., Galambos, N. L., & Krahn, H. J. (2017). Time, money, or gender? Predictors of the division of household labour across life stages. Sex Roles. Advance online publication. doi:10.1007/s11199-017-0832-1