Women making history: The chore wars and divisions of labor

This post is one of a series of posts in observance of Women’s History Month.

Procter & Gamble launched a new campaign recently to highlight the unequal division of labor in households, promote greater equality in chores, and no doubt sell more of its popular household products. In a December 2020 survey, P&G reported that 63 percent of women said they are mainly responsible for chores, compared to 31 percent of men. Uneven gender divisions aren’t new, but they have taken on new significance during the pandemic.

For most of history,
housework was not considered real work. Its economic effects were rarely
studied before the publication of Ann Oakley’s study of British housewives in
1975. Pollsters had made attempts to document how men and women spent their
time, including in the famous Middletown studies by Robert and Helen Lynd. In
1924, they found that white women in Middletown spent four hours or more on
daily housework. By 1999, only 14 percent spent that amount of time or more on
chores. In the Lynds’ study, 22 percent of white women in 1924 said they had a
full-time job, and 83 percent did in 1999. In time-use studies in the 1970s,
80s, and 90s, researchers found that women still did most of the housework, but
that men were spending a little more time on it.

Via Twenty20

The Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting yearly data on time spent on various activities in 2003. In 2019, women who engaged in the activity spent twice as much time on housework, food preparation, and cleanup than men did, while men spent more time on lawn and garden care. Between 2003 and 2019, the share of men doing food preparation and cleanup on an average day increased from 35 percent to 48 percent. Taken together, these studies show that men are doing more, but women still carry a more substantial burden at home.

Previous research has shown that this unequal division of labor is a minor irritant in most households. A March 2019 poll from Langer Research Associates for HuffPost/Yahoo!/CARE found that among women who live with a partner or spouse, “most are relatively content with the extent to which their partner joins in household chores.” Fifty-three percent of those women say that household chores are shared about equally, and seven in 10 are comfortable with the current distribution of household work.

How has the pandemic affected the division of labor and what kind of imbalances exist in most households now? The July 2020 online American Family Survey looked not only at husbands’ and wives’ contributions, but also at those of children, confirming overall long-standing differences in the way couples split chores. “Men think they are carrying their weight around the house, but women tend to disagree,” the authors wrote. In the survey, parents generally agreed on the amount of time children are contributing now. They also reported that “men are more likely to be satisfied with the contributions of their children and spouse than are women.” In the battle between the sexes, chores appear to be a skirmish, not a war.