Yes, my husband does the laundry. Not just his own laundry, but all of it: towels and sheets, the kids’ clothes and mine, placemats and reusable masks. Every weekend, he collects dirty clothes from hampers, runs load after load, hangs the delicate items on a rack, and folds the rest into neat dryer-fresh piles that he deposits like gifts outside each bedroom. My husband’s quite good at it. He never seems to forget to switch the wash to the dryer, he folds with a military precision learned well from his mother, and he doesn’t complain about the thankless and repetitive task. On a Saturday or Sunday, it’s common to find him sitting on the couch with a basket of warm clothes beside him, meticulously matching socks and folding t-shirts while catching the latest baseball or hockey game on T.V.
But please don’t give my husband a medal. I’m certainly appreciative, and my children should be too – since he’s far better at laundry than I’d ever be. (I wouldn’t put the same level of care into the task as he does; in this respect, I take after my mother, who efficiently bundled clean clothes into haphazard lumpy little piles that promised deep-set wrinkles.) Regardless, “doing the laundry” is just one of many mundane tasks required to run a household, and so it seems reasonable that, as a contributing adult and co-parent, my husband plays his part.
Yet quite a few people have remarked to me about his laundry prowess: “Wow, you’re so lucky!” or “Isn’t he just wonderful!” Yes, he really is wonderful…but not (only) because he does laundry. I mean, really? I don’t hear anyone celebrating the fact that I watered the plants or washed the dishes (though I do feel both guilt and scorn when I fail to do either as often as I should). We each pull our weight around here – with some tasks falling more often to one of us or the other due to preferences or capabilities (or who gets bothered first about dirty floors or not having fresh fruit) – because we are partners on this journey.
As it turns out, equal sharing of household tasks with a cohabitating partner of the opposite sex isn’t typical. My family is among a special group: in only 28% of U.S. households is the man responsible for laundry. In the United States, women continue to bear the brunt of household responsibilities including meal preparation, house cleaning, grocery shopping, and childcare. Men take the lead in only two categories: yardwork and car care. Even when both adults are working outside the home, women still take on a disproportionate amount of household duties. Data shows that when a woman earns more than a man (true for 29% of heterosexual married U.S. women), she is still more likely to be taxed with household chores. And this is nearly as true for young couples as it is for retirees. According to a 2019 Gallup Poll: “Despite some changes over the past two decades, the division of labor in U.S. households remains largely tilted toward traditional stereotypes.”
This gender-based split of household responsibilities doesn’t only occur in the U.S. In Spain, women are significantly (2-12X) more involved in childcare, cleaning, and shopping, while men are more involved only in domestic repairs. In the United Kingdom, women take responsibility for tasks inside the house (like bathroom cleaning and laundry), while men drive the outside-the-house chores (like putting out the garbage bins and gardening). In Japan, wives do seven times as much housework as their husbands; even women who work full time do five times as much as their husbands. In Australia, women who are the primary breadwinners in a household with children spend over forty hours each week on housework and childcare, seventeen hours more than their male counterparts.
A 2016 study analyzed the 50-year trend in the gender division of housework. Overall, there has been a reduction in the gender gap – meaning men are spending more time and women less time each year on household chores, thus a smaller differential. Of the countries studied, Italy, Spain, and Poland continue to have the largest gender gap; the U.S., Canada, and Denmark have the smallest. But in every case, women still spend more than twice as much time as men on housework.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us were stuck at home together for an extended period. You might imagine (or hope) that these exceptional circumstances would present an opportunity to drive further equity with household tasks. For instance, with much less commuting and nearly no business travel, dads (and moms) were now home to help make dinner and available for weekend chores. I think it’s too early to know the lasting effects quarantining will have had on gender roles, but the initial data isn’t encouraging. Women with school-age children who lived with a male partner carried a heavier load in providing childcare after schools closed due to COVID-19. Women lost their jobs during the pandemic far more than men; one out of four women who became unemployed reported job loss was due to lack of childcare, twice the rate of men.
Some research suggests that LGBTQ+ couples may have more equitable divisions of housework than heterosexual couples. These families navigate the domestic labor split based on time availability and personal preferences, rather than centuries-old gender norms. There is a lot to be learned here, as we update our theory and analysis to account for diverse relationships and to extend beyond binary gender identities.
So, why does it really matter who mops the floor or makes the spaghetti or loads the dishwasher? Firstly, some of these jobs are really unpleasant. Nobody enjoys cleaning toilets. Nobody. But somebody has to do it or else…everybody in the family suffers. If the dirty job always falls to one person, it may build resentment that damages relationships. An Israeli study found that the leading reason women look to have extramarital affairs is lack of support with household chores. A Canadian study found that when men do their share of the housework, couples have a better love life.
When women are saddled with the majority of household chores, the burden takes a toll on career prospects outside the home. The challenge of balancing (or integrating or juggling) work with home responsibilities may cause women to opt out of opportunities for advancement (the so-called glass ceiling). Other times women won’t be considered for promotions because of overt or unconscious concerns about competency or conflicting personal obligations (the so-called sticky floor). As a result, women continue to earn on average 18% less than men, a gap that is larger among top earners. Many more choose part-time work to accommodate household responsibilities, impacting income further.
If those weren’t reasons enough, here’s one I find especially compelling: These ingrained gender role stereotypes get perpetuated in our children. The example we set for kids has long-standing implications on their own career potential, expectations, and happiness. One study found that when the distribution of household work between parents is more equal, children can more easily envision balancing work with family and are less constrained by gender norms. In particular, a father’s participation in household work influences his daughter’s occupational preferences, suggesting that a more balanced division of household labor could promote greater workforce equity in the future. I especially enjoyed the article: Dads, if you want your daughters to be CEOs, do the laundry. So, perhaps for this reason alone, we’ve set up my daughter (and sons) for success…and maybe I should give my husband that medal after all.