Brad Harrington is the Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family. This was originally posted in the BCCWF Member Newsletter.
This week our research received significant international attention thanks to the cover story of Time Magazine titled Chore Wars. The subtitle makes the article’s main point: Let it go. Make peace. Men and women, it turns out, work the same amount. The author, Ruth David Konigsberg did her homework. In addition to reviewing our most recent fatherhood study in great detail, she also reviewed the work of and interviewed many leading experts in the field including UCLA sociologist Suzanne Bianchi (the only two-time winner of the Kanter award which we present each year with the Center for Families at Purdue), Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute, Arlie Hothschild, whose book The Second Shift (1989) solidified the notion that working women do much more than their male spouses, and Joe Pleck, one of the original gender experts who explored men’s issues.
The conclusion that Konigsberg comes to is that it’s time to let go of the outmoded notion that men are slackers at home and do less than their spouse in terms of contribution to the family. She looked at the combination of paid and unpaid work that individuals do and concluded that while women with children who work full-time do carry the heaviest load, 73 hours of paid work and family work each week, men who work full-time were a not-too-distant second averaging 68 hours a week regardless of whether their wife worked outside of the home full-time, part-time, or not at all. Women working part-time were doing slightly less at 66 hours and “non-employed mothers” were contributing 58 hours a week to the family. Her contention was that Hothschild’s findings were based on data collected nearly four decades ago. That was a time of transition when “white collar” women were beginning to work full-time in large numbers and men had not yet picked up the slack. While men have made dramatic changes in the last 40 years in terms of care giving and household chores, there remains an inequity on the home front for women. But at the same time, men on average are doing 18 more hours of paid work per week.
Most of the main points of the article seemed sound to me. First, the divide between what mothers and fathers are doing to support their families is not very great – you have to look at the big picture (or at least the combined picture of paid and unpaid work) to fully understand the pressures and strains that both members of the couple are feeling. Second that the myth of the “slacker dad” needs to be re-examined. In my mind it isn’t that the fathers are slackers. It’s that way too often, as our study The New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted clearly demonstrated, from the day a baby is born men and women are channeled into roles based on outdated gender stereotypes. And finally, perhaps in large measure because of these gendered roles, women have far less “uncontaminated” leisure time than their spouse. Women tend to be the first port of call for every issue that arises in their family and as a result, their leisure time is filled with “just one quick question” or one small interrupt that doesn’t make leisure time feel all that leisurely.
Chore Wars is a catchy title and Konigsberg’s research seems quite extensive for her piece. But moving beyond the old paradigm will require that we stop seeing all this as a gender war. Instead we should start meeting the challenges of work and parenting as a true partnership where men and women don’t view one another as adversaries or fall into the expected, pre-determined roles based on outdated mental models of who does what. Wars typically end with conversations that lead to negotiated treaties. It’s time we jumped directly to thoughtful conversations among partners to determine how the family can operate best keeping each partners’ work, family and life goals paramount as they seek to maximize their contributions to the family while maintaining some semblance of a life for themselves.