A small study looking at how gay and straight couples negotiate chores has found that (surprise) same-sex couples are better at discussing and negotiating a fair division of labor, which in turn leaves both parties more satisfied. Every straight woman may now look to your boyfriend/husband/roustabout and sigh with the soft resignation of knowing that your advanced capabilities, while deeply satisfying, in no way lead to greater happiness (or less work).
Researchers at the Families and Work Institute and PriceWaterHouseCoopers wanted to find out if what they suspected is true—that, because same-sex couples don’t experience the same gender-based expectations and economic privilege differences that straight couples do, they would divide household chores more fairly. So they asked a mix of 225 couples who takes primary responsibility for what among 16 household tasks across three categories, as follows:
- Grocery shopping
- Running errands
- Outdoor work
- Household repairs
- Home budget management
- Investment management
- Routine care of children
- Transporting children to/from school, childcare or other activities
- Getting children ready for the day in the morning
- Getting children ready for bed in the evening
- Assisting with homework
- Attending parent/teacher conferences and other school activities
- In-home care when your child is ill
The researchers note, as you likely will have, that some of these tasks are stereotypically feminine—laundry, cleaning, cooking—while others are stereotypically masculine: auto repair, outdoor work. This superficially neat division conceals the similarly obvious fact that these tasks take wildly different amounts of time in the day to day, so although it might seem like a fair trade when a dude handles oil changes and mom does childcare, you would pretty much have to own a stable of temperamental, outrageously eccentric, unreliable cars that must be hand-rubbed to start every day to have that task even come close to the care and feeding of a child. Lawns only need mowing every week or so at worst, but errands present themselves on the daily. As you know, women get the shit end of the stick on the domestic front, even when they work full time.
A summary of the study’s findings:
A greater proportion of same-sex, dual-earner couples than different-sex couples indicate that they share laundry (44% versus 31%) and household repair (33% versus 15%) responsibilities.
A greater proportion of same-sex, dual-earner couples than different-sex couples indicate that they share routine (74% versus 38%) and sick child care (62% versus 32%) responsibilities.
In both types of couples, lower earners took on the primary work of cooking; in hetero couples that was more often the woman. Additionally, for straight couples, working more and earning more was correlated with masculine chores, like household repair or outdoor work—tasks that, as we noted, tend to be more irregular and infrequent than “feminine” chores. It’s not shocking that men in the same-sex couple relationships reported higher levels of satisfaction with their housework situation than did women in straight partnerships.
Why does this matter? In a comment on the study at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Brigid Schulte notes:
In straight couples, women are still often considered the primary, or default, parent, responsible not only for organizing, overseeing and caring for children but for also doing many of household chores. Time diary data shows that women, even when they work full-time, tend to spend about twice as much time doing housework and caring for children.
“There’s been a lot of calls for more sharing of child care responsibilities, so it isn’t only a woman’s problem and she isn’t the only one dealing with the fallout at work. But we see more sharing in same-sex couples,” said Ken Matos, FWI senior director of research and author of the study. “Taking on primary child care responsibility impacts one’s work time. It creates so many unscheduled interruptions, so that’s an important thing to be shared.”
But here’s the most important takeaway, as Schulte notes:
Men in gay partnerships were much more likely to say they had discussed how to divide the labor when they first moved in together. Women in straight partnerships were much more likely to say they wanted to, but didn’t.
It’s talking and sorting it out—more than strict equity, which would naturally be affected by each couple’s tendencies and schedules and desires—that means the most. Couples are happier when they stick to the premise that they are equally responsible for this space they both inhabit, and that there is no such thing as being automatically responsible for anything based on their gender.
“The people who said they bit their tongue had a lower satisfaction with division of household responsibilities,” Matos said. “So satisfaction may not be so much about what you do, but whether or not you felt you had a voice. Did you say what you wanted? Or did you let it evolve and feel like you couldn’t pull yourself out of the situation once it settled and got stuck?”
While these findings are certainly a window into how progress can be made when couples treat chores not as scripted extensions of gender roles, but as negotiated preferences of individuals balanced by the greater collective need of the family, they simultaneously reinforce why it’s so hard to move the needle on the domestic chore front for straight couples: We often can’t see the forest for the trees, i.e. the idea of fairness for the trained sense of gender identification. Often, rigidly enforced gender roles create the false sense that your socialized interests are in fact some innate preference—thus the intense need for so many men to perform an interest in sports whether they truly share it or not, or for women to feign caring about shopping to fit in.
Writer Andrew Solomon is quoted in Schulte’s piece, and nails it: “If there’s one thing same sex parents could teach is that it’s not that one of us is ‘really’ the mom and one is ‘really’ the Dad. Those are irrelevant concepts. We’re just both in this together.”
It’s too bad this stuff is so hard to sort out, because any couple, gay or straight, should feel equally invested in a relationship to the point that what works best for everyone is the goal, not that your steps—and in this case, your chores—are already laid out for you at birth, whether they make any sense in your life or not.
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Illustration by Tara Jacoby