Ending the Gendered Division of Labor in the Home

Fostering equality in the home starts with education and practice.

Photo by Getty Images/lolostock.

One key way to ensure that women aren’t continuing to shoulder an unfair burden of household and childcare tasks is to model a gender-neutral division of labor in the home. This sounds simpler than it is.

In an informal survey I conducted in 2017 of a diverse group of 200 parents, two things stood out: one, women are still definitely doing more home and childcare than men, particularly when it comes to the under-the-radar tasks that keep home and family life running (recent data from Pew supports this as well); and two, people who plan to be parents are often not thinking and talking through how they will run their households once they have kids. A whopping 68 percent of respondents answered the question “Before having children, did you discuss division of labor with your co-parent?” with “Not at all” or “Not really.” While of course, the division of labor in a home is something that evolves over time, I believe the fact that so many people don’t discuss it before children enter the picture is a big part of why it often ends up being unequal. Creating equality requires intention and effort.

In my own case, about a week before my first child was born, my husband casually said to me: “Oh yeah, I guess we didn’t really talk about this, but I assume you’re okay with staying home with the baby for a while?” He was joking, but there was a kernel of truth to that joke that, honestly, made me want to slap him. We hadn’t talked about it, and I felt like I had no idea what life would look like after the baby was born, which resulted in some tough times that probably could have been avoided. I don’t expect every couple to have the time or inclination to go full nerd on a spreadsheet capturing every detail of their home life, but understanding what’s involved in managing a household and figuring out how that labor will be divided is fundamental to righting some of the imbalances inherent to motherhood in America today.

No matter what your living situation, whether you’re the only adult in the house or not, it’s also critical to avoid gender- stereotypical chores wherever possible. Kids are born a particular sex, but they learn gender roles and they learn them early. In their influential 1987 article “Doing Gender,” Candace West and Don Zimmerman note: “What is produced and reproduced [by housework] is not merely the activity and artifact of domestic life, but the material embodiment of wifely and husbandly roles, and derivatively, of womanly and manly conduct.”

In a 2011 study of boys growing up in single-mother households, researchers Clara Berridge (University of California at Berkeley) and Jennifer Romich (University of Washington) found that the mothers, who taught and expected their sons to participate fully in household chores, felt strongly that they were both preparing their children to be self-sufficient—a skill necessary for boys and girls—and that, in teaching their sons in particular to play a meaningful role in the household, they were preparing them to be good husbands and fathers. That finding dovetails with Vânia Penha-Lopes’s 2006 analysis of black men’s recollections of the housework they performed as boys; they felt that “having done housework early on better prepared them for adult life.” A 1999 study by Constance Gager, Teresa Cooney, and Kathleen Thiede Call about professional husbands and wives sharing housework also established that having done a type of housework as a child was related to a greater likelihood of doing that task as an adult.

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