Friday, September 17, 2004

On Dust, Dinners and Dollars

The Department of Labor just published a study on the division of domestic chores in U.S. households. The results are what I expected, given that I have followed the research in this field for a very long time:

Because the survey is entirely new, it offers no comparison with how people spent their time 10 or 20 years ago. But it does confirm that the old divisions of labor between men and women at least partly remain.
The average working woman, for example, spends about an hour and a half a day caring for other members of the family, the average working man barely 50 minutes. Likewise, the average working woman spends more than 1 hour 20 minutes on household chores, the average working man less than 45 minutes.
Almost as many women as men hold jobs, the Labor Department said: about 78 percent of women, compared with 85 percent of men. But two-thirds of all women said they prepared meals and did housework on an average day, compared with only 19 percent of men who said they did housework and 34 percent who said they helped with meals or cleanup.

Though this particular survey may be new, many studies over the years confirm the same pattern. But it's worth noting that the percentage of men sharing in domestic chores is rising over time, albeit slowly. The figures from the late 1980s would have been much more dismal.

It's also worth pointing out that the above summary of the study doesn't tell us how many hours the men and women in the study work, and in some cases the division of labor may come from the men's longer working days. But not in all cases. And it may be interesting for you to know that single women spend more hours on domestic chores than singe men do.

All this points out the strength of traditions and perhaps upbringing and preferences by gender in determining the sexual division of labor in families. The economic explanations for such differences would fail to explain why couples where both work full-time would still have the rest of the work so unequally divided or why single women do more chores for themselves than single men do for themselves.

For a feminist, the messages of this study are several. The most obvious one is that the revolution that led women to the labor force was only a partial one. Women took on some roles that in the past were denied from them, but men have not taken on the roles that in the past were defined as female to the same extent. Or as some say, the revolution hit the streets and the offices but not the homes. That would be the next stage, perhaps, and one which should be started by both men and women, given that men have a lot to gain from being allowed more time to be a father and a partner, a lot to gain from not being viewed as a money-making machine vulnerable to a sudden breakdown. There are men and women already walking this new path of a fuller humanity for everybody.

For an anti-feminist, the message is very different. It goes something like this: See! Women can't have it all. Go back to the two extreme choices. You can have a family or you can have a job, but you can't have both. We told you so in the first place. And no, we will not change anything in the society to make other options available to you, we will not bring up children differently, we will not allow for flexibility in careers and jobs. Who do you think you are?