By Eliana Huffman
What if the way gender is performed in your marriage affects things like how much money you make? And what if your culture affects this even further? Researcher Lynn Prince Cooke sought to answer this question in regards to how couples split household labor in the United States compared to Germany, two different countries and cultures, and how this split affected the wage gap.
The results were pretty surprising. In the United States, equally shared household labor between husbands and wives increased female partners’ salaries, and led to lower chances of divorce. In Germany, however, the women’s salaries were also increased, but they experienced greater chances of divorce.
What Cooke boiled it down to was this: in most cultures, men are prescribed the role of economic production (i.e. “breadwinning) in a relationship with a female partner. Women are prescribed the role of domestic (re)production, an equally important task yet one that is often shunned for being “women’s work.”
“Women’s continued responsibility for the domestic sphere inhibits their ability to attain employment equality with men (Ferree 1990; Hartmann 1981; Hobson 1990). So as an interlocking system, the gendered nature of both paid and unpaid work blocks the ability to achieve gender equality in either domain (Ferree 1990, p. 874).”
While many people believe Europeans to be far more liberal than Americans, Cooke found through analyzing longitudinal survey and interview data from the German and United States governments that in West Germany people believed much more strongly in certain genders being assigned certain household tasks, and Germany’s increasing divorce rates are more likely a result of men resenting the change in power dynamic between genders—rather than actual familial issues caused by women doing less housework and men doing more. In fact, the data said families were equally attended to regardless of who took care of these tasks.
Take that, people who think women who work are abandoning their families.
Germany’s social policies still stem from a post-WWII era where having a male breadwinner was extremely idealized, and its culture still surprisingly reflects that. The United States, in contrast, has a longer standing history of allowing women more equal opportunity to achieve the status men do in a professional context—other cultural norms may contradict the ability for women to achieve success, but our policies take a more hands-off approach to the issue entirely.
Is the solution to address outdated policies that affect women decades later? For sure. But there are many solutions to this problem, and it is a truly a big problem indeed—divorcing your life partner is not only expensive, but upsetting, painful and just plain messy.
One big solution that we can all take on a personal level is to talk out issues of resentment and labor expectations with our partners, and come to that conversation with the knowledge that more work at home means more money in the back for you both.
Another is to only pick partners that are down to share the workload equally in the first place. Choosing to share a life with someone who you know is already on the same page in this regard is a much less frustrating alternative than having to actively work through a problem that could be potentially avoided.
Lastly, of course, be sure to praise men and couples who you see actively working towards this egalitarian goal when you can. Validation is often so meaningful to people, and dishing it out can be good for both an individual relationship as well as society at large.