Commentary: Women shouldn’t do any more housework this year

Stock photo Dreamstime.

Women spend 47 minutes more on housework on average than men each day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That adds up to roughly 5 ½ hours each week, and that’s not including childcare, grocery shopping or errands, which the BLS classifies in other categories and of which women also do far more.

Here’s another way to think about it: To equalize the load, women would have to stop doing housework on Aug. 29 for the rest of the year.

So maybe they should. We already have Equal Pay Day every spring to bring attention to the additional months women would need to work to catch up to men’s earning power. I suggest we adopt Equal Housework Day every August to underline the extra labor women put in at home.

The housework gap affects millions of Americans. More than half of U.S. households consist of romantic partners; the vast majority (98%) are opposite-sex couples. For women in the key career-establishing years of 25 to 34, most (59%) live with a spouse or partner.

The gender gap in housework persists regardless of a couple’s other commitments. Among dual-career couples, women do more housework – even when they earn more money than their partners. Among retirees, women do more housework. Among non-employed men and women of prime working age, men spend the lion’s share of their waking hours watching TV. Women spend it on housework.

It isn’t as if men don’t have time to cook or clean. The average man has about 40 minutes more daily leisure than the average woman. Among married parents who both work full time – where time to rest is tight, and the housework gap shrinks to about 30 minutes – the husbands take even more leisure than their wives: 44 minutes more every day.

The result is that in almost every coupled household, women do more and have less time recover. Women consistently report higher rates not only of burnout, but also of stress, depression, anxiety and insomnia. The housework gap is surely not the only reason, but it can’t help.

One survey from March, led by advertising agency Berlin Cameron and author Eve Rodsky, asked respondents what single thing their spouse or partner could do to lower their stress levels. The most common response from women: “Help around the house more.” Yet when men were asked what one thing their wives could do to lower their stress levels, their most common response was “Nothing, I’m happy with the way things are.”

I don’t think these men are saying “I’m happy my wife is so burned out.” But they might not be fully aware of the stress their partners are feeling, and of their own, passive role in fueling it. Indeed, multiple studies suggest that men consistently overrate their own household contributions. That obliviousness is a problem that Equal Housework Day could help solve.

One challenge is that the activities men do tend to be less frequent and more deferrable: yard work, home repairs, car maintenance. It’s women who disproportionately end up with the daily grind of cooking, cleaning and laundry. As consultant Kate Mangino points out in her new book, “Equal Partners,” one reason women prioritize flexibility at work – and often accept lower salaries as a result – is because their unpaid work is so inflexible. The gutters can wait; dinner can’t.

Women pay a steep economic penalty for being so helpful: A college-educated woman in her 20s, Mangino points out, earns roughly 90% of what her male peers earn. By the time she’s in her 40s, that drops to 55%. Looking at comparative data across countries, the more housework men do, the more women there are in leadership roles in government and business. Gender inequalities at home are inextricably linked to those at work, and Covid has widened the gap in both places.

To close the housework gap, men don’t need to spend more time mowing the lawn; they need to start doing some of the tasks their female partners do every morning and every night. That might be awkward, especially at first; our cultural associations about who does what are so strong that we often, mistakenly, think that “she’s better at” tasks like cleaning. A wife might forbid her husband from entering the laundry room, the way he tells her to keep her hands off the cordless drill. But at best, female skill is simply the result of years of doing a task over and over.

Most people don’t think of their own households as reproducing sexist societal dynamics, research by Allison Daminger, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has shown. That would be too painful. Instead, we find ways to rationalize the housework disparity, making excuses like “She’s a perfectionist” and “He’s laid back.” This isn’t really true – as Daminger points out, some men who claim they aren’t detail-oriented hold jobs as project managers or surgeons.

And one result of seeing the housework gap as the result of individual quirks and choices is that any attempt to solve it risks becoming an interpersonal argument. Those can be costly for women – literally. Beth Livingston, a management professor at the University of Iowa, has found that if women negotiate too aggressively with their husbands about whose career should be prioritized, it can result in the husband withholding his emotional support from his wife, and in his wife’s career coming second. (When husbands negotiate aggressively, they don’t experience this backlash from their wives.)

Equal Housework Day would help by admitting that the housework gap is actually a cultural problem that’s bigger than any one couple. And just as we can’t expect the gender pay gap to go away by getting women to “negotiate better” with their bosses, it shouldn’t be down to individual wives to solve the housework gap by “negotiating better” with their husbands.

But solving it wouldn’t take much: Men have 40 minutes more a day of leisure time than women do; women do 47 more minutes of housework than men. Men could do just 23 minutes more of housework each day and nearly wipe out the housework gap.

The alternative is for women to exercise the nuclear option: Leave the house messy and the fridge empty from now until 2023.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor.



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