If Men Are Working Just as Much as Women, Why Do Women Still Feel Like They're Getting the Shaft?

Family Matters on 07.26.11
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Men have it pretty easy when it comes to family obligations, right?  We're just expected to show up and be the lovable doofus who does Mom's bidding when ordered to; but when left to our own devices will let the laundry pile up to the rafters and feed the kids Top Ramen every night.

In the latest issue of Time Magazine, Ruth Davis Konigsberg tracks the reality and mythology surrounding the inequity of labor division in families, citing historical trends and sentiments, and examining some of the newest data from the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics.  And her surprising conclusion is that the combined amount of paid and unpaid work men do is now almost the same as the amount women do.  In other words, the amount of time the average American woman spends at her job outside the home plus the amount of time she spends doing unpaid labor at home is almost exactly the same amount of time the average man spends in these arenas. 

This data is surprising because conventional wisdom has dictated for decades that women, even if they do just as much work outside of the home as their male partners do, still do the lion's share of work around the house. Konigsberg traces the origin of this belief to Arie Russell Hochschild's 1989 book, The Second Shift, which was based on research she had conducted for ten years starting in the sixties, and which showed that women on average worked 15 hours more per week than their partners. 

Since the publication of The Second Shift, research has shown the gender inequities shrinking, as Konigsberg lays out in an overview of the sociological literature on the subject through the years. And the latest data shows women doing only 20 minutes more work per week than men.

Konigsberg is careful to point out that this doesn't mean men are  doing half of the housework.  It just means that they are doing more work outside the home, so their total combined workload is comparable to that of women, who typically work fewer hours outside the home but far more hours in the home. 

The author explores many of the other implications of the latest data, but her main point is that, despite the rosy picture the data paints, she still feels overworked personally, and thinks other American women feel like they too are shouldering more than their fair share of the family work.

She posits two theories as to why it still feels as though women are working more than their men. The first is that women generally take on the kind of managerial role in the family that consumes energy even when they are not actively working.  They are constantly planning and calculating what needs to be done, what supplies are running low, and which kids need to go where when.  In other words, they are never off duty.  The other theory is that men are better at relaxing.  Women, she says, are much more likely to include their children in "leisure" activities, whereas men tend to get away from the family to relax. 

To her first theory, I would have to say that my domestic situation corroborates her claim, perhaps even more dramatically than in a traditional family arrangement.  Even though as a stay-at-home dad I'm the primary caregiver, my wife is the primary decision-maker.  I may choose what activities the kids will do from day to day, what they'll wear, and what they'll eat; but my wife usually does the grocery shopping, manages the finances, and takes care of the more "big picture" family issues.

As for Konigsberg's theory about "quality leisure time," our family definitely doesn't fit that profile.  Almost all of our free time is spent together, so I guess neither of us is relaxing efficiently.  

Finally, Konigsberg claims that the main benefactor of the changing attitudes toward gender roles and family responsibilities may be, ironically, the stay-at-home mom.  Because of the cultural shift toward men being involved parents, the stay-at-home mom is no longer expected to endlessly work in the home with no help from her partner.  As a result, stay-at-home moms have some of the lowest reported workloads of anyone interviewed. 

If new, higher expectations for fathers make the jobs of stay-at-home moms easier, imagine the situation for a stay-at-home dad, whose wife is the product of countless generations of high parenting expectations.  I'm not going to elaborate on that point much for fear that my wife may read this and start scrutinizing how many hours I actually work at home, but suffice it to say, it's not a bad gig. 

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