23 January 2013 11:15 | By Hugh Wilson, contributor, MSN Him

Why housework inequality is a myth

Women do the housework and men put their feet up, right? Maybe not...


Man doing laundry (© Getty Images)

According to a study published this week, only bad personal hygiene is more likely to get men dumped than failing to do your bit around the house.

The study, by online takeaway ordering service Just Eat, also found that deciding who cooks and clears up after meals is one of the most common causes of fights between couples, second only to money issues.

The researchers, who interviewed over 2,000 British adults, discovered that nearly one-fifth of British couples said chores were the most frequent cause of arguments in their household. Furthermore, not helping around the house is a bigger issue for women than men, with nearly one-third of women saying that never doing any household chores would lead them to end a relationship.

The new study feeds into a common perception about housework, that men don’t do their share and women are resentful as a result. But is it true? We dust down the evidence and find that the issue may not be as black and white as all that.

Men don’t pull their weight

It’s certainly true that some evidence suggests housework inequality is real.

For example, analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) thinktank published last year showed that eight out of 10 married women do more household chores, while just one in 10 married men does an equal amount of cleaning and washing as his wife.

“Women still shoulder the overwhelming burden of household tasks, particularly after they have had children,” said Nick Pearce, director of IPPR.

Another survey, by researchers at the University of Ulster, found that housework inequality continued to exist even when both partners worked.

It found that women spent three times as long on domestic chores, such as cooking, cleaning and washing, as their husbands or partners.

And another study, by Mintel, found that mothers who worked also continued to do more of the household chores.  “Despite talk of modern family life, old-fashioned stereotypical households are predominant," said Ina Mitskavets, consumer and lifestyle analyst at Mintel.

"Although there are increasing numbers of mothers in paid work, mothers still continue to be responsible for most domestic chores.”

From all this it seems pretty clear that men need to shape up around the house. We’re not pulling our weight, and the result is resentful partners and unhappy relationships.

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Man relaxing (© Getty Images)

The common view that men relax while women scrub may be a myth

The definition of a chore

That said, some evidence suggests that not all men’s contributions to the smooth running of a modern home are being reflected in studies like these.

One American journalist, Scott Behson, writing on a site called The Good Men Project, recently trawled through the detail of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), a measure that consistently uncovers evidence for the presence of a housework gap, with women doing more than their fair share.

He found that, according to PSID’s own report, “housework was defined as 'core chores,' or routine housework that people generally do not enjoy doing such as washing dishes, laundry, vacuuming floors and dusting. Other activities such as home repairs, mowing the lawn, and shoveling snow were not in the study.”

And therein lies the gist of one argument against the existence of housework inequality. The surveys simply don’t include a lot of the things men do the lion’s share of, like car maintenance, mending fuses, unblocking drains and grouting bathrooms. If they did, they might find that the chore gap closed significantly.

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Man and woman arguing (© Monkey Business Images-Rex Featu)

Research suggests that couples often argue about housework

Men do fewer chores, but more work

But changing the oil in the car and fixing things tend to be occasional one-offs, rather than the everyday drudgery of laundry or washing up. So even if men do more of them, they’re unlikely to close the gap completely.

But another American journalist, Ruth Davis Konigsberg, took a look at figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and then tried to combine both paid and unpaid work (like housework) to create a complete picture of the toil each gender endured.

And what she found was that women did indeed do more than men, but to the tune of just 20 minutes extra a day.

That’s not to say that women didn’t do quite a lot more housework than men. They did. But part of the reason for the gap was that men spent longer at work. Even when women worked too, men tended to work for longer hours.

The American picture is probably mirrored here. Recent findings from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that British men were nearly three times as likely to be working “very long hours” than their female counterparts.

So while women may be a slave to the cooker and washing machine, men might be a slave to a long-hours culture that uses fear and economic instability to keep them at their desks for longer than is either productive or healthy.

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Stressed men at work (© Getty Images)

The long-hours culture may help explain why women do more housework

Is housework inequality a myth?

It’s undeniably true that (on average) women do more housework than men, and do so even when both partners work. It’s also probably true that some men need to do a bit more around the home. Surveys have shown that couples who split the housework are happier - and that’s true for both partners.

But evidence suggests that the issue is also more complex than that. Research that shows a large 'chore gap', for instance, tends to discount areas where men take the lead, like car maintenance and household repairs.

That may not close the gap completely, but a long-hours culture that affects men more than women may also be to blame. If that’s true it may be time to put gender conflict aside, and start finding a better work/life/chore balance for both men and women.  

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