Friday, March 02, 2007

Sweeping Out the Cobwebs

A new British study has provoked some attention on blogs. It looks at the hours of housework that women and men do both before and after they couple up:

A new study has found that employed women living with their employed partner actually spend more time doing housework than single women. The men, on the other hand see the hours they commit to housework decline once they begin living as a couple.

The findings come from analysis by labour economist Helene Couprie of Toulouse University.

Her research, based on data from the British Household Panel Survey looked at working women - single or living with a partner, both with and without children. And by examining information on more than 2,000 people, she concluded that on average, an employed woman does 15 hours a week of housework when she lives with her employed partner, up from 10 hours when single. Meanwhile the men, who do seven hours while living alone, do only five when they co-habit.

The findings are partly, Ms Couprie suggests, due to influences that people have grown up with - where traditionally women have taken on the lion's share of domestic tasks.

She says that as long as children see their parents stick to certain tasks, such trends become hard to change.

Jessica Valenti at pointed out the study, Matthew Yglesias did some calculations of the unequal effect and points out that women have higher standards of cleanliness, given that single women did about three hours more work per week than single men. Still, employed women see their chore hours rise and employed men see their chore hours fall as they become couples.

Why is this the case? Scott Lemieux suggests that the expected ideal level of housework should perhaps be reconsidered, given that this expectation was built during a time when married women were full-time housekeepers in middle-class families:

To once again borrow from Jacob Levy the idea that "[t]he only non-sexist equilibrium is for both partners to converge on the preferences that got inculcated in women by societies that had one partner be a full-time housekeeper, sometimes with additional paid help" is plainly erroneous, and assuming such standards on average puts women in an exceptionally weak bargaining position -- in which gross inequalities are inevitable. The underlying differences don't justify the inequality, but they do make clear that trying to equalize at an anachronistically high level of domestic work is a bad feminist strategy.

And Kevin Drum views the study as telling us that men are slobs and raises a banner for the brotherhood of men by arguing that the study in fact shows men working more when overall work hours (paid and unpaid) are considered:

But I was curious about why the total hours of housework goes up so dramatically for couples (two people shouldn't require twice the hours of housework as one person, should they?). Was this due to the presence of children or did they control for that? So I went looking for the paper itself, and eventually found an earlier version of the research here. Unfortunately, it was so crammed with formidable looking equations that I quickly gave up.

However, if you scroll down to Table 2, you'll find something that makes the basic results a little more understandable: men in couples do less housework than women, but they also do way more work outside the house (44 hours vs. 31 hours on average). Women's work outside the home declines when they become part of a couple, and my guess is that men's work outside the home increases (though, oddly, Table 2 doesn't actually provide this data directly). The total amount of leisure time reported within couples is 128 for women vs. 124 for men. The guys aren't quite so lazy after all!

Now, the author warns us to be careful with this data, since time spent with children is sometimes coded as housework and sometimes coded as leisure, and it's not always clear which is which.

The study Kevin dug up is not the final version of the paper. It might not even be an earlier draft of the same data, though I guess it probably is. The "Table 2" Kevin refers to has no information on single men, for example, which makes it tricky to interpret the figures. But the whole manuscript is interesting, because it explains that the "single" and "partnered" people in the study are people who changed their status from one to the other group during the study. So the results are not just comparing a group of single people to a group of partnered people, but in fact look at how the time allocation of the people changes as their partnering status changes.

This also partly explains why the single women in Table 2 are almost as likely to have children (41% of them do) as the partnered women and men (52% of them do): some of them went from being partnered to being single, and suggests that it is not the arrival of children alone which would explain most of the change in time allocations.

Everything clear now? Actually, things are getting messier. The single women have the highest leisure time of the three groups listed in that table, work more for money than the partnered women and do less housework, and now I really want to know if these women were at first partnered and then became single or vice versa.

Doing time-use surveys is very tricky. Imagine how well you would do in estimating how many hours you spend on various chores at home. Then add to that the fact that we often multitask. If you watch television while ironing (remember ironing?), are you enjoying leisure time or doing a chore or both, and if both, what percentage of the time should be allocated to each use? It gets even harder when one tries to measure time spent taking care of children as some respondents will regard that as leisure time and others as household chore time. Or both.

But the manuscript is actually about something rather different: bargaining power in marriage and the way ones salary or wage rate affects ones bargaining position. The authors conclude that it is the unequal wages men and women on average garner that makes the allocation of household chores deviate from some equal sharing arrangement, and that it is the higher wages men can acquire that makes them work more hours for money.

Why would it matter how partners decide to allocate their working time between chores and paid work? It's all for the good of the family, after all. Well, yes. But the two types of work ARE different, because one is paid based on a formal legal contract and one is not paid in that way, but subject to negotiation.

The household chores are like a public good: something that benefits everybody in the family almost immediately but also something that doesn't grow a pension or future promotion possibilities, whereas the person who works for money gets these and often also a bigger legal say in how that money is spent. This is what makes the bargaining position of the partner not working outside the home weaker, other things being equal, and this is also why it matters how much one earns when negotiating household chores.