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Men make a meal of household equality

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Friday, 20 January 2006


I wonder who cooked and washed up your Christmas dinner? Chances are it was women. Scores of studies reveal women are still doing the lioness’s share of the work at home. (Lions never did do much work.)

Today, though they begin sentences with “I’m no feminist but …”, women jealously guard what gender equality they have won (and hang on to an advantage or two).

Confident that gender roles were “social constructs” many expected a revolution in the household division of labour as women poured into the paid workforce. But as one disappointed feminist put it, we’ve got a “stalled revolution” on our hands.

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Here’s a snapshot. In the mid 1990s women in Australian couples spent nearly 12 hours a week preparing food - their men just three. They spent 14 hours washing clothes and cleaning the house - to their men’s 2½ hours. Childcare involved a similar division of labour.

There are two mitigating factors. First, blokes do more of the “traditional” men’s tasks. They spend slightly more time on family finances and putting out the garbage (though neither takes long). They garden and mow. And do three of the four hours per week spent on improving the house (or resisting its fall into ruin).

Second, as women take on more paid work they do cut back a little around the house. Even so, women still do lots more housework and childcare.

Recently women have scaled back on meal preparation by outsourcing it to the market. Home delivered pizza or Chinese anyone? Pasta sauce or chilled soup from the supermarket? In case you’re wondering, after outsourcing the cooking, couples are outsourcing Dad’s gardening more than Mum’s house cleaning.

Why is there such a disparity? And does it matter?

One view is that it’s all a purely economic transaction. With men earning at higher rates the “opportunity cost” of their time is higher. And specialisation in the division of labour usually improves efficiency.

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You’ll be unsurprised to hear that feminists see things differently. They see stereotyped gender roles which have come under vigorous challenge in public life still thriving in the privacy of our homes.

They argue that women’s disproportionate household contribution arises from a power imbalance in favour of men. With women receiving lower pay and couples still paying more attention to the man’s career trajectory, the patriarchy gets its gender expectations met and perpetuates its dominance.

The fact that women’s share of household labour does fall as their relative earnings in the household rises supports both explanations. But the effect is quite small. Women with the same hours and earnings as their men still do most housework. These patterns are similar in all rich Western countries.

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First published in the Courier-Mail on January 11, 2005.



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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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