Marina Adshade is the author of The Love Market: What You Need To Know About How We Date, Mate and Marry. She teaches at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics.
The summer I turned 15, I set off with my father, my brother and a family friend on the adventure of building a boathouse at our family cottage. Over the course of the week, I woke each morning to make the crew breakfast before they made their way down to the construction site. After finishing the dishes I joined them; hammering nails and hauling lumber with the rest of the boathouse building team. At the end of the day, while the crew relaxed, I made dinner and served cold beers on the deck. I was proud of my contribution to our collective project.
At the end of the week my family had a beautiful new boathouse, my 13-year-old brother had a cheque for $600 and I had a feeling that the work I had done was not really appreciated.
This last week, the U.S. organization Junior Achievement released the results of a study that found that 52 per cent of boys (age 8 to 18) were paid to do household chores compared to only 45 per cent of girls.
This gap is significant given previous evidence collected by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research that found that boys spend an average of 30 per cent less time doing chores than girls (approximately 2 hours less per week) and are up to 15 per cent more likely to be paid for those chores.
An older Canadian study found a nearly identical gender gap in the time spent in doing household chores (2.4 hours per week) and, interestingly, girls not only spent more time on work that could be described as “caring” (cooking, cleaning, laundry etc.), they also spent more time on work described as maintenance (20 minutes more).
This evidence is sufficient to make anyone wonder if the way that parents reward household chores is contributing to the adult gender wage gap that emerges almost immediately once those children enter the work force.
So far, most of the discussion has focused on lessons girls learn when their contribution to household production goes unrewarded; essentially that caring work should be done by women and should go uncompensated.
Much more interesting, in my opinion, is the lessons that boys learn when they are paid to do tasks that the adults in their life do for free; they learn that the only activities worth doing are those that will result in a payment.
There are a variety of reasons why the gender wage gap exists, many of which can accurately be described as the result of choices that women themselves make: decisions around educational discipline, choice of occupation, hours worked, sector of employment and the degree of flexibility in the job.
Given the magnitude of these effects on the differences in male and female incomes, it is easy to dismiss the wage gap all together as women’s choice. What this evidence around children’s contribution to household chores reminds us, however, is that those choices are made with the very realistic expectation that the men in those women’s lives will always prioritize activities that generate income over those unpaid activities that contribute to the welfare of the family. If parents taught their sons the value of unpaid work, perhaps women would make choices that led to higher incomes.
I will say this, despite my deeply held belief that my brother ought to have contributed to the construction of the boathouse without compensation, today he is the very model of an actively participating father and husband. My parents may have believed in a strict division of household labour along gender lines, but they did an extremely good job at teaching us the importance of work in the home.