couple painting

A 2007 Pew Research poll found that sharing household chores was the third most important factor for a happy marriage, with 62% of adults reporting that sharing household chores was very important to having a successful marriage. Only fidelity and a good sex life ranked higher. Sharing chores ranked higher than compatible interests, political beliefs, and even adequate income. But as long as there are marriages there will be disagreements about how to divide those household responsibilities. In the end, however, who does more?

According to a March 2013 Pew Research analysis of the American Time Use Survey, mothers and fathers spend roughly the same total amount of time working, although men’s time is more apt to be spent in work outside the home, while women still do more housework and child care.

While Pew notes that gender roles seem to be converging since the 1960’s, data from the General Social Survey (GSS) reveals that since 1994 little has changed. Convergence in gender roles among married couples seems to have slowed over the past 20 years.

time use men and women

Although the total number of hours of work done by men and women is comparable, men and women have dramatically different perceptions about how much of the household work and childcare they each ought to be doing. The 2012 GSS asked adults how equitable they thought the division of household labor was. To sum up the results, women feel put upon when it comes to household work, and they feel that they are doing more than their fair share of the work.  More than half of married women said they do more than their fair share of housework while only just over one-quarter think they do about their fair share and less than one in ten think they are getting away with doing less than is fair.

fair share

So are women just more apt to complain? After all, total workload appears evenly distributed between men and women. Despite this, it would seem that women are not simply more likely to feel put upon, but rather, both women and men tend to overestimate their own contributions to tasks for which they have primary responsibility, whether by mutual decision or otherwise.

Spouses have very different perceptions of who actually does what.  The GSS asked respondent who usually does most of the grocery shopping, the laundry, the household cleaning, who cooks the meals, who makes parenting decisions, and who does small repairs.  In every case the most common response is that the burden is shared equally between husband and wife; however, those who report unequal divisions of labor for a specific task also report that the wife does more (in all cases except for with small repairs).  While this is unsurprising given the Pew data showing that women still bear the majority of household work, what is surprising is the differences in how men and women perceive the division of labor.  For all tasks except small repairs, men are more likely to believe that they share the task equally with their wives, and much less likely to believe that their wives do more than they do.  Meanwhile, with small repairs the roles are reversed with women much more likely to believe that they do an equal share and less likely than their husbands to report that they do less than an equal share.

sick laundry groceries cleaning small repairs

So are men shirking duties, or do women complain more? On average, the answer is likely neither, but rather that each gender tends to specialize and to overestimate their contribution to tasks in which their spouse takes the lead while underestimating their spouse's contribution to tasks that they predominantly lead on. If the GSS had asked men if they did their fair share of the paid work they would probably be more likely to say that they did more than their fair share, just like their wives appear to be saying that they do more than their fair share of the housework.

But, we also would be remiss if we didn't take the trend we see seriously.  While mothers and father spend about the same amount of time on paid work, household work and childcare combined, these types of work may not be created equal. Even the types of childcare that mothers and father give is different.  Fathers spend a greater percentage of their childcare time playing with children, while mothers spend greater percentages of this time giving physical care such as bathing or feeding children.  Similarly, men in the American time Use Survey found household cleaning to be more stressful than women did.  So, although the total number of hours that mothers and father spend on making the family run may be roughly equivalent, the amount of energy it takes to do so may not be.

The lesson?  Modern marriage often involves sharing of responsibilities of paid work, childcare and household work between spouses, but often one spouse will take the lead in one area, while the other spouse will pitch in. Couples may want to discuss what an equitable distribution of responsibilities looks like, who will take the lead in certain responsibilities, and how the burdens of family life can be equitably divided.  Couples may also want to remember that equitable sharing of responsibilities may not always mean that every responsibility is equally divided.