Man vans and dinnertime plans: family work and the wage gap

By Eliana Huffman

“I call it house work

‘Cause it’s life work

But I’m gonna throw shade

If I don’t get paid for this house work”

Jax Jones may be onto something here. In 2000, researchers Barbara Arrighi and David Maume found that women who do more “housework” than their husbands (after their professional days end) make proportionally less money than men who do more “housework” than their wives. Crazy, right?

The researchers discovered this by creating a survey (completed by 385 men) that considered the following three factors the most important in determining how spouses split up family work: available time, gender-role attitudes, and power dynamics. But before we continue, it’s important to note that all of these factors influence each other, and can’t be weighed without this context.

The major takeaways? When men feel that they’re subordinated or feminized in their professional jobs, they retaliate at home and don’t contribute as much to what they consider “feminine” household tasks: think cooking, cleaning, etc. Weirdly enough, women picking up more hours at work also didn’t increase the amount of family work that their respective husbands contributed—and in the reverse situation, when men picked up hours at their jobs, their wives yet again were the spouses that took on more family work.

Basically, in every scenario they studied, men either contributed the same amount of “housework” that they did before, or even less, regardless of the woman’s professional commitments. Still with me here?

Here’s the big kicker; with this information, the researchers determined that men not contributing equally to shared household tasks is a huge factor in the wage gap, and that women are held back in their careers because of it.

Why? When women are overwhelmed at home with family tasks, they lack the energy and confidence that males (who have female partners picking up the slack) have to seek promotions, ask for raises, and generally advance themselves in their careers. Further, women who report that they expected their husbands to contribute moreand don’t have these expectations metalso rank their marriages as less satisfying and more distressing than women who expect less. As a result, tensions like these led to many dissatisfied women simply quitting work, which decreases marital tension but decrease their experience and tenure—and all of the professional and financial advancements that come with them. 

So what is a woman to do when she’s feeling stressed both at home and at work, with less support from her partner than she deserves in an equal and healthy partnership?

article-2695134-1fb4024500000578-653_634x766I wish I could tell you there’s a simple solution, but there’s not. Communicating to your partner that you’re feeling overwhelmed and believe you should work on dividing family tasks equally is a start. And if you’re not already in a committed relationship, don’t commit to a person who hasn’t demonstrated an ability to share housework; Sheryl Sandberg says that picking your partner is one of the most important decisions a woman makes.

But this is a larger social issue, where it’s hard for men to contribute to family work even when they want to, because we lack structures like guaranteed paternity leave. Policies like this would normalize men contributing more equally at home (and they have worked very well in countries like Sweden). Along the same vein, we act as if men who drive minivans or change diapers are “heroes” for “overcoming stereotypes”which would be totally cool if we praised women for these same behaviors, but we don’t. We also unfortunately judge women who try to compensate by taking off long periods of work to care for children, while accusing others of being cold or unmotherly for returning to work “too soon” after a child is born. It’s just truly hard for women to win here.

Fortunately, the situation isn’t hopeless. Businesses have the power to adopt new policies that give parents more flexibility and work-life balance. The government has the power to encourage these businesses to do so. And ultimately, the people have the power to speak the heck up…and do their part.

It all starts with one man picking up a toilet bowl brush.

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