Why Housework is So Unequal for Most Straight Couples

Gender divisions have stayed the same since the 1990s.

Megan Tabako is a stay-at-home parent. In her family, that means she’s in charge of the house and the cleaning schedule.

“My husband finds dirty dishes gag-worthy, so the kids load and unload the dishwasher,” she said. “And I do the ones that need washing by hand.”

She and the kids also clean the bathroom. Her husband, in turn, does the outdoor tasks and vehicle maintenance.

That might sound like a classic gender division, but her’s is far from the only household that splits things up this way.

According to a 2018 study of heterosexual men and women, women do double the household chores that men do, on average. The chores that men did tended to be more masculine — like repairs — while the chores that women did tended to be more feminine — childcare, or shopping.

For Tabako, there was no formal discussion that made things that way. She and her husband have lived together for 11 years. It’s how things naturally evolved.

A man and woman do household chores together. REWIRE PBS Love houseworkCredit: Adobe
In the U.S., women still do about 100 minutes more of “unpaid labor”— housework, shopping, childcare— per week than men do.

It feels equal to her.

“His responsibilities are the big stuff, and mine are the everyday, weekly stuff,” she said. “And neither judges when the other forgets or chooses not to do something on the list.”

Gender divisions

Tabako’s household sounds familiar to what I grew up around in the 1990s.

I may have been watching TV dad Danny Tanner making dinner and cleaning for his “Full House,” but my life looked a little more like “Leave it to Beaver.”

My mom did the housework and cooking. My dad did the outdoor work. That’s just the way it was.

Since the 1990s, male involvement in housework has improved slightly, but female contribution has stayed the same.

Even though that division is common, not everyone feels it’s equal.

Heterosexual women, more than men, tend to think that the housework is unequal.

Knowing the unequal division of household labor, that makes sense. But I was curious, when I read that stat, how many women feel comfortable actually bringing it up to their boyfriend or husband.

Dea Dean, a Mississippi-based licensed marriage and family therapist, said it can be difficult to have that conversation.

“If we throw in cultural gender roles, asking for more help with household and childcare duties can trigger fears of judgment or incompetence about our mothering or femininity,” she said.

“It’s up to every individual to ask for what they want and to describe how they feel when others are unwilling to demonstrate care for their wants.”

When Kaitlyn Broback first moved in with her husband a little more than two years ago, they, too, didn’t talk about chores. Each of them just grabbed the tasks they liked to do.

But some things weren’t getting done. They had to have a formal conversation about it.

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Communication is important

Today, Broback cooks, vacuums and waters the plants in their urban apartment. Her husband does the dishes, cleans the bathroom and makes the bed.

They trade off wiping counters, cleaning up clutter, doing laundry and grocery shopping.

“I think clear communication is the most important thing,” she said. “Like if I’m not going to get to putting my clothes away one day or week, I just let my husband know and it’s great.”

Likewise, if he’s caught up with work and can’t get to the dishes, he lets her know so they don’t just sit in the sink for a few days.

They don’t have a yard, and they don’t own their place, so they don’t have additional yard work or home repairs to delegate.

That doesn’t mean things are automatically more equal. A 2018 study from Ohio State University found that urban heterosexual men do fewer traditionally masculine tasks, but they spend the same amount of time on traditionally feminine tasks as other men do.

In other words, they don’t step up their involvement inside the house, even though there’s less to do outside of it. Heterosexual women spend the same amount of time on housework no matter where they live.

Broback’s situation is more equal, she says, because she was clear about the arrangement she wanted.

“I have to say, I’m reluctant to do more than 50 percent of the housework and chores because it makes me feel like a housewife,” she said.

“Which is great for some women, but I personally don’t like feeling like that’s my job. I love that it’s equal for us.”

Some flip the script

In the U.S., women still do about 100 minutes more “unpaid labor” — housework, shopping, childcare — per week than men do.

In fact, it’s unequal in most countries — in Denmark, women do just 57 minutes more than men, while in India, that number spikes up to 300.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t situations and couples who don’t flip the script.

Mariya Kemper owns her own business, and her husband works a more standard 9-to-5.

That means that he’s left with most of the housework, because he spends much more time at home than she does.

“When I do have the rare day at home, I always try to make sure he comes home to a clean house and a home-cooked meal,” she said.

It’s an arrangement that works for them.

“I own my own business, so our liveliness depends on me doing my job well,” Kemper said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies have shown same-sex couples are much more likely to distribute housework equally.

Part of that is because there’s less pressure around gender norms, says Diana Fitts. She and her wife delegate tasks based on work schedules and what they enjoy.

“I work from home and my wife doesn’t,” she said. “It’s easier for me to clean the house when I’m home and it’s easier for her to stop by the grocery store on her way home from work.”

Her wife likes washing dishes. She likes sweeping the porch. They’ve worked out a system that works for them.

Asking for help

Not every couple works things out this easily.

If you’re in a relationship where the work is unequal, asking for more help can feel scary.

Dean said it’s important to know that your feelings are valid, above everything. That’s harder than it sounds.

For instance, if your partner says they can’t take the kids to school, you can be honest about your feelings. You can tell them you are angry and are not feeling considered.

Something like: “I’m wondering if you’re considering my busy day at work as equally as you’re considering your own,” Dean said.

You can share what you’re feeling — maybe that it seems your partner doesn’t believe your job is as important as theirs.

Put the question out there, Dean says: “‘Will you clarify for me if I’m right? And if I’m wrong, will you help me understand why you’re unwilling to take the kids today?’”

When you know you have a right to ask for more help, and to feel the way you do, a hard discussion will be a lot easier. You’ll feel like you have more agency in the conversation.

Gretchen Brown

Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.