Why the Divide: Factors Influencing the Division of Household Labour

The unconsidered option

A recent article1 published by The Economist highlights the issue of housework chores falling disproportionately on women. New research suggests that the fulfilment of household obligations depends on different attitudes to housework. Namely, men who like housework would spend up to 60% more time on it during weekdays than those who are indifferent. When it comes to women, preferences have no effect on time spent doing chores.

A comment left by Jay Moore provides a utility argument in evaluating the division of household labour –

In assessing the fairness of the household division of labor, it is necessary to account for the value that each partner places on the end results. Yes, the tidy room is used by all, whether or not they contributed to making it so, but the amount of additional enjoyment each gets from its tidiness is not evenly distributed. It is only fair that the partner who derives more satisfaction from the results should bear more of the burden for accomplishing them.

Moore points to the fact that household labour should be divided according to the amount of satisfaction each individual receives from a clean environment. But there are many other factors underlying the allocation of household chores, and interestingly enough, past models of household behaviour tend to emphasise other factors more than the appreciation of end-products.

Previous studies do presume however, that the end-products play a larger role than intrinsic merits associated with the task. A popular assumption used was that household chores had no “process benefits”. However, by observing that those who liked cleaning spent more time on it than would be predicted, given their opportunity cost, and were less likely to outsource it, the study mentioned by The Economist revealed that “process benefits” did play a role; however that role was significant in motivating housework in the male population only.

On the other hand, traditional literature supports the theory that the partner with a higher salary should spend less time on housework, since household utility can be maximised through specialisation – one specialising in market production while the other in home-based production. This model places less emphasis on personal preferences; in particular, personal preferences may be disregarded for the collective good of the household.

A study on American dual earner households found that the higher a husband’s share of household income, the less time he spent on housework, and the more time his wife did. In contrast, sociology studies find that women earning more than their husbands contribute relatively more time to housework – this puts the “comparative advantage” model of household utility into question. The inconsistency is explained by a display theory known as “doing gender”; whereby women who earn more income opt to do more housework, demonstrating their feminine side by conforming to “culturally appropriate” expectations. This is why division of household labour is as likely due to practicality and preference as it is to gender.

Satisfaction of end-products therefore only encapsulates a slice of the complex interactions underpinning household division of labour. Furthermore, Moore’s claim that fairness is achieved when those who value the outcomes more bear the brunt of housework is disputable. Though additional benefit from tidiness is not evenly distributed, the end-product is. Cleanliness is not excludable which means when one partner, usually the one with a lower tolerance for mess, does all the housework, someone else inevitably enjoys the benefits too. Theoretically, this shouldn’t detract from your own satisfaction, but there is an innate sense of injustice which is one reason why there’s so much contention surrounding the allocation of household labour.


References/Further reading

  1. “The Ironing Lady”, http://www.economist.com/node/21553035
  2. “The Role of Preferences and Opportunity Costs in Determining the Time Allocated to Housework”, http://ftp.iza.org/dp6436.pdf

2 thoughts on “Why the Divide: Factors Influencing the Division of Household Labour”

  1. Great article Alice! The utility argument also doesn’t hold once you throw kids into the mix. It’s difficult to argue that the value each partner places on cleanliness should determine who does the housework when you are both raising children! And it seems that women are disproportionately doing the child-rearing labour.

    This (light hearted) article looks at gender stereotypes in advertising and sitcoms (http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/being-the-punch-line-20120308-1um0i.html); the way men are frequently depicted as hapless idiots and women as possessing innate household organization and domestic skills. This guise of domestic ‘superiority’ is perhaps a double bind not dissimilar to ‘doing gender’.

    I guess the question is how do we address this domestic labour imbalance?

    • Thanks Freya, that was a good article, I really enjoyed reading it! I think sitcom and stereotype advertising plays a substantial role in conserving this domestic labour imbalance, and it’s true that it doesn’t do any favours for men but I still believe it’s more detrimental to women because the implications for females are more confining and restrictive.

      There are studies that have shown that ads appealing to stereotypes activate implicit attitudes, making us conform to that stereotype. For example, there was one study which showed that women after viewing tv ads portraying the ‘bimbo’ stereotype subsequently showed less preference for quantitative fields of education/vocation. Which is why I believe one way to address gender misconceptions in general is to stop inundating everyone with media that supports out-dated stereotypes.

Comments are closed.