Commentary / World

Gender equality starts in the laundry room

by Sarah Green Carmichael

Bloomberg

Aug. 26 marked the 99th anniversary of American women winning the right to vote. One of my great-grandmothers marched for suffrage, and I’ve often thought that Lucy May would be dismayed to find that, 99 years later, we’ve never had a woman president. She’d be delighted that women outpace men in getting bachelor’s degrees, irritated by the persistence of the gender wage gap — and utterly confused by the vast amounts of time modern women spend on housework.

It’s 2019! We have high-efficiency washing machines and dishwashers that connect to a magic glass rectangle in your pocket. We have $1,500 vacuum cleaners and refrigerators that tell you when you’re running out of almond milk. How is it possible that the average full-time working woman spends over 21 hours a week on housework?

Meanwhile, full-time employed men put in more time than women at their paying jobs — about four more hours per week. The trade-off women are making, then, has a real economic consequence.

Using data drawn from thousands of detailed time diaries, economist Valerie Ramey estimated, in 2008, how much time women spent on “home production,” an umbrella term for cooking, cleaning, childcare and other kinds of unpaid household labor. In 1900, a married employed woman put in about 27 hours a week, and in 2005 she did … about 27 hours.

Among single women, the story is even more discouraging: An unmarried working woman in 1900 did only about seven hours of home production; by 2005, the number had more than doubled.

Where is all this housework coming from?

Part of the answer may be a higher standard of living. We live in bigger houses now, and they take longer to clean. We’ve also raised the standard of cleanliness: a shirt worn only once gets thrown into the hamper; we see a few crumbs on the floor and hit them with the electric floor mop.

We also invest a lot more time in our kids. And the time we save on laundry, cooking and sewing goes to driving around buying things (or clicking around buying things, and then driving cardboard boxes to the recycling center).

Another reason for the rise in housework: More of us live independently. An unmarried woman in the early 20th century probably lived with her parents, or in a boarding house, where someone else would have done a significant share of the cooking and cleaning. For many women, those hours spent at the laundromat or the grocery store have been the price of greater freedom.

But of course, this doesn’t explain why single women’s housework hours have topped out at around 18 hours a week, while married women do almost 10 hours a week more. (It’s almost as if husbands … create more work?)

Here’s why this is an economic problem: People who work longer hours (or at least appear to be working longer hours) can command higher salaries. Pay is allocated disproportionately to people willing to put in the longest hours. Face time might not be productive, but it does pay off.

All of this suggests that if women are going to make more strides in the boardroom, they need to get out of the laundry room.

But how? People generally don’t like letting their standards of living slide backward, so just letting things revert to Warren G. Harding-era levels of squalor is not an appealing option. The most obvious solution would be to get men to do more housework, right?

Here’s the crazy thing: They already do. Employed men at the turn of the millennium were putting in more than four times as many hours of housework as their great-grandfathers, according to Ramey.

Ah, but men are still doing less than women — much less than married women, and even less than single women.

Moreover, the housework women take on tends to be less flexible. For example, a man is more likely to do home repairs, outdoor chores and one-off projects, which can be done as his schedule permits. Women tend to take on the daily or weekly tasks — laundry, groceries, cleaning, childcare — that can’t be deferred if she wants to work late.

All kinds of theories have been proposed as to why women get stuck with more housework and, while they’re fascinating, I’m not going to get into them here. The long and the short of it is that there are only so many hours in a day, and the extent to which men take on these tasks can make a big difference to the women they live with.

Although gender equality is not a zero-sum game — households and economies benefit when women are more educated, earn more and have more opportunities — housework is.

Indeed, among high-achieving women who decide to leave full-time work, two-thirds cite lack of household support from their husbands as a decisive factor, second only to inflexible workplaces. As one woman told the researchers, “He has always said to me, ‘You can do whatever you want to do.’ But he’s not there to pick up any load.”

And much research has linked shared chores to happier marriages. A 2018 study found that marital satisfaction increased when husbands offered breadwinning wives not more emotional support, but tangible help. In a study that I was convinced would send husbands rushing to the laundry room, German researchers found that when men made “a fair contribution” to housework, couples reported more and better sex.

There’s also a major benefit to daughters. Those who observe their fathers doing household chores develop broader career aspirations, a 2014 Canadian study found.

So who are these amazing couples who split housework and childcare more equally? There’s kind of a chicken-and-egg effect here. In marriages in which the women have higher human capital than their husbands — more education, more earning power — husbands do more housework. (Although still not as much as their wives!)

Naturally, though, it would have been hard for those women to get their advanced degrees and good jobs without partners willing to shoulder more of the load at home. Not surprisingly, several studies suggest that the husband’s ideology also plays a role: In couples that share the housework, the husbands are more likely to believe in the equality of the sexes.

I’m willing to bet a lot of these egalitarian men would like to see the gender pay gap close, more women in leadership roles, and hey, maybe even a woman president. If that’s the case, gentlemen, tell your friends: The road to equality may very well lead through the broom closet.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was an executive editor at Harvard Business Review,

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