Women are literally expected to do all the chores, depressing study finds


Brace yourself, because what I am about to say is #depressing.

According to a new study presented at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting, most Americans still believe that women should be responsible for the majority of the cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, and child-rearing—even if the woman has a full-time job or makes more money than her partner.

Yes, for real.

Researchers from Indiana University and The University of Maryland looked into the effects of income and gender on the division of labor between married couples. They wanted to see which partner was expected to do more in the chore department, and what role gender stereotypes played in that decision.

To get to the bottom of these important queries, researchers surveyed 1,025 participants using GfK, a research company that maintains a nationally representative panel of respondents. The participants were each asked to read different vignettes describing a married household. Several characteristics about each partner were listed—income, occupation, and hobbies. Here’s an example:

Brian and Jennifer met five years ago and have been married for just over a year. Brian is a physical therapist at a hospital, bringing home about $57,500 a year, and Jennifer is a reporter for a local newspaper, bringing home about $25,250 a year. They are both very busy, each working 40 hours per week. Despite their busy schedules, they try to do things together regularly. In fact, one of the only reoccurring arguments they have is what to do on the weekend together. Brian usually wants to play basketball if they are going out, or watch an action movie if they are staying in. Instead, Jennifer would rather go shopping or watch a romantic comedy

In this case, the husband makes more money than the wife. In other vignettes, these traits were manipulated so that the wife made more than the husband. Since the researchers also included gay and lesbian couples, the listed characteristics were manipulated so that one partner was seen as more “masculine” and one was seen as “more feminine” in order to judge how gender stereotypes affected same-sex couples.

After participants read the vignettes, they were asked about who should be responsible for eight different household chores: cooking, washing dishes, cleaning, grocery shopping, doing laundry, outdoor chores, making auto repairs, and managing household finances. They were also asked who should be responsible for different child-rearing responsibilities, including emotional needs, physical needs, discipline, and stay-at-home parenting.

Now, one might assume that whoever makes less money or spends less time at work would be tasked with taking on more household and child-rearing responsibilities. But what the researchers found was that gender was a bigger predictor of household expectations than income. In fact, income made basically no difference.

Nearly 75% of respondents thought that the female partners in heterosexual couples should be responsible for cooking, doing laundry, cleaning the house, and buying groceries. Women were also expected to be responsible for household finances. On the other side, 90% of respondents felt men should be responsible for outdoor work and car maintenance.

I don’t know about your household, but the cooking and laundry in my house usually has to be done a lot more than fixing the car, which puts a much bigger burden on women than men.

As for child-rearing, 82% of respondents said the female partner should be responsible for the children’s physical needs, 72% said she should take care of the children’s emotional needs, and 62% believed the woman should be the stay-at-home parent. Meanwhile, men were only expected to handle one task: discipline (and even that was only expected by 55% of the participants).

“Female partners are expected to do more female-typed chores than male partners, and male partners are expected to do more male-typed chores than female partners, holding relative income constant,” explained the authors in the paper.

They added: “Relative income has virtually no effect on the amount or types of tasks assigned to heterosexual males, aside from stay-at-home parenting.” In other words, even when men made less money, the expectations of housework placed on them didn’t change. And naturally, this creates a double-standard. As the authors explain: “When women are either lower-earning or feminine, they are penalized in the sense that they are expected do more chores and childcare tasks than they otherwise would. But Americans generally do not penalize [heterosexual] men [with additional chores] when they are lower-earning or feminine.”

Put plainly, the results indicate that if a woman makes less money than her husband, she is absolutely expected to take care of the chores and child-rearing. This holds true even if she herself has a job, and it’s thought of almost as a way of compensating for her lower income. However, when a woman makes more money, she is still expected to take on the brunt of housework, but no extra expectation is placed on the lower-earning male, aside from the fact that he might be expected to become a stay-at-home parent. This presents an unfortunate reality: Housework is still considered women’s work, no matter what.

I warned you this would be depressing!

As mentioned earlier, the study also used gay and lesbian couples in the marriage vignettes. The researchers found that overall, the more “masculine” partner was given more classically masculine chores and the more “feminine” partner was given more typically feminine chores. But according to the authors, this was rather unexpected.

“Sex was by far the strongest determinant of which tasks people assigned to each spouse in heterosexual couples,” Natasha Quadlin, a co-author on the study, said in a press release. “But, surprisingly, that theme extended to same-sex couples. When there wasn’t a sex difference between partners, people relied on information about gender to guide their beliefs about what people should be doing. So, in other words, they took the heterosexual norm, where there are certain chores that men are expected to do and certain chores that women are expected to do, and used that same rationalization to determine household responsibilities for same-sex couples.”

At the end of the day, these gender norms tend to have a bigger impact on couples than advancements we’ve made in gender equality on a policy level, according to the researchers, and they inevitably hurt women. “We have public policies aimed at ensuring that women and men have equal earnings, but those policies will not necessarily advance gender equality in the home if people maintain such gendered attitudes,” they write.

The burden of the “second shift” isn’t just about equality—it’s also about health. Previous research has shown that women who work full time are at a greater risk of heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and diabetes than men who work full time. Women essentially pull two jobs—their paying job and their household job—whereas men simply aren’t expected to do the same.

Seriously (in the words of John Oliver): How is this still a thing?

Taryn Hillin is Fusion’s love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.

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