Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Richard Abgrall vacuums as his twin three-year-old sons Mason Mehnert, left, and Declan Mehnert try to help at their home in Vancouver. (DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Richard Abgrall vacuums as his twin three-year-old sons Mason Mehnert, left, and Declan Mehnert try to help at their home in Vancouver. (DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Dirty work: How household chores push families to the brink Add to ...

In this first of a six-part series, The Globe and Mail takes a look into bathrooms, kitchens, basements and legislatures to see how families and nations tackle the chore challenge.

One evening in her New York home, Christine Frederick sat dutifully “mending” – one of the few chores that, it’s safe to say, will not come up again in this story. But in 1912, the modern practice of fixing socks by buying a new batch at Costco was not yet in fashion.Mrs. Frederick was eavesdropping on her husband and a business associate discussing the improvements “efficiency experts” were making to assembly lines. She paused to interrupt: “Why, I suppose you smart men will soon try to tell me and all the other women that washing dishes can be ‘standardized’?”

Dirty Work: A Six-Part Series

Yes, indeed, the men said.

A year later, Mrs. Frederick published The New Housekeeping, saying her “efficiency gospel” would free women from the general feeling that housework is a “kind of ogre” from which there is no escape.

She provided meticulous instructions on everything from the left-handed “laying-down motion” to facilitate rapid dish washing to numbering sheets with indelible ink, linked to recipe cards giving their makes, sizes and purchasing dates.

Clever wives who applied these steps would find housekeeping “fascinating and stimulating,” she promised, but “our greatest enemy” was the career woman who felt “weighted down” by these tasks. Presumably such a woman might observe that finding the most optimal placement for the dish drainer did not compensate for the injustice of being chained to the kitchen.

One hundred years later, that weighted-down working mom of Mrs. Frederick’s fears is still dreaming of escape from the housework ogre – particularly during the early-evening chaos of what Women’s Almanac in 1975 called the Arsenic Hour, when weary parents stumble home from work, cranky children plow in from school or daycare, and the bulk of time-sensitive domestic chores must be done or else no one eats, gets a bath or has their soccer uniform cleaned for the next game. In those frenzied hours before bedtime provides its sweet respite, the bulk of the labour still falls to mothers.

Whether or not they work full-time, and no matter how high their salary, women still get stuck with the crappiest jobs – the ones most likely to require rubber gloves and solvent, as opposed to strolling Loblaws in relative leisure with a latte in one’s hand.

Progress on balancing the chore chart appears to have stalled. At the current rate, Oxford University sociologist Oriel Sullivan suggests that Western society is halfway through an 80-year transformation, which means it will take until 2050 for a truly equal gender division of tasks.

In the meantime, despite all the gains in female education and employment – at this point, 42 per cent of Canadian women match or exceed their husband’s salaries – working mothers still clock almost twice as much unpaid labour as fathers.

Even Mrs. Frederick would have to admit that is hardly efficient, and the most functional IKEA kitchen will never make it otherwise.

Husband and fathers are definitely doing more. An increasing number, in fact, are doing more than an equal share. Couples with higher education tend to be more egalitarian, and twentysomethings more than their parents. But marriage still increases the labour load for brides and lightens it for grooms.

And babies make more mess for mom. Couples without kids tend to share chores more equitably, if only because there are fewer chores to share. A recent study in Norway and Sweden, those beacons of gender equity, found that having children reduced the odds a young couple would report equal sharing by 27 per cent.

Some of the imbalance clearly comes down to differing standards – one person is almost always tidier than the other and, having absorbed Mrs. Frederick’s lessons and their many cultural incarnations since, women are more likely to be the ones heard fuming over dirty bathrooms.

Conflicts about cooking and cleaning are a significant source of stress in families – and unlike, say, monthly bills, chores are everyday events.

Marital happiness is much higher when both partners believe chores are divided fairly, or that they are working as a team, even if it’s not 50-50. In a recent study, both husbands and wives chose sharing household chores as the third most important factor for marital bliss, after faithfulness and good sex.

It would be a mistake to reduce the issue to a squabble over who folds the underwear. The gender gap in unpaid labour has significant implications for policy: It makes no productive sense for a chunk of the country’s educated population to be spending disproportionate time on brain-numbing tasks because of their gender. If the family is a factory, as Mrs. Frederick would attest, then each “worker” should be performing at his or her best potential.

As economists such as Nobel Prize winner Gary S. Becker noted as far back as the 1960s, when a woman knows the bulk of child care and housework will fall to her, she’s likely to make different choices about the career she will pursue and the time she will devote to it. There are legitimate reasons why women choose nursing over engineering, or to get off the corporate ladder when they have kids. But the laundry should not be one of them.

That is why, in her popular book Lean In, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg extolls ambitious women to find a man with willing dishpan hands. And why a 2010 article titled “Housework is an Academic Issue” argued that universities could improve the research outcomes of female professors by adding allowances for domestic help to benefit packages.

The real brain drain is at the bottom of the kitchen sink.

Not for nothing has housework been called the last feminist frontier. For all the advances women have achieved in the public, the traditions of private life have been slower to bend.

Maybe men have not stepped up. Maybe women are conflicted and won’t let them. But with apologies to Mrs. Frederick, wielding a well-designed dust pan has never been a position of power. Whoever dodges dish duty, even if he gets the silent treatment, runs the world.

“What happened, very simply, is that we got the vote. We got the right to have an education and a career. We took advantage of these opportunities. But nobody said, ‘But, but, but – you are still going to be doing all the other stuff too,’” says Angel LaLiberte, 52, a mother of two in North Vancouver who juggles the bulk of the traditional chores while running a website and trying to write a book. “We should be further along. This is like having a tin can tied to your leg when you’re trying to run a race.”

If it is a race, lately working wives and mothers have been running in circles. Most of the narrowing of the gender gap in domestic labour happened prior to the 1980s. Even then, it was lopsided – rather than men doing significantly more, it was led by women who had shifted their priorities from housework to paid work and child care. The most radical change came in the 1970s, with women entering the work force in droves, as Susan Strasser details in her book, Never Done: A History of American Housework – a booming fast-food industry serving as one of the most obvious signs.

Since then, the time that Canadian women spend on housework has decreased by 70 minutes, to about 156 minutes a day; at home, the extra hour was invested in child care. Men have roughly doubled their time in chores and tripled the time they spend with their kids. However, given that their father’s generation rarely touched a dishcloth, that’s still fairly little in real time.

In the studies he began in the 1960s, Dr. Becker, the economist, found that as women earned higher salaries outside the home, their time became more valuable and they used their increased financial independence to negotiate better deals at home over the dishes. But even today, the level of a woman’s salary matters less than how it compares to her husband’s – making the gender wage gap a key to equity in the home.

Research using diaries and surveys collected from men and women around the world over the past half-century has confirmed those arguments, with some caveats. Women with higher income and more education spend less time on housework than women in lower income and education brackets, partly because they are more able to hire someone to perform the tasks, particularly by dining out.

A 2008 U.S. study found that every $1,000 a women earns results in an extra $17 to pay for cleaning, laundry and restaurant meals. By comparison, the same increase in a husband’s salary meant only an additional $9 for those labour-savers. In other words, women’s salaries often pay for “women’s work.”

Households with higher female incomes also spend more on yard work and home maintenance, so mom’s paycheque apparently lightens everyone’s load.

Cracking the equity equation

So, if women are increasingly better educated and rising up the pay scale, why does housework lag behind? In an interview this week, Dr. Becker, now an economics professor at the University of Chicago, argued that the division of labour still comes down to two forces: earning power and what he calls “productivity” – that is, personal decisions around which parent wants to be home, or who is most able to handle the chores.

But where does gender fit in to those calculations? Housework is the most female-segregated job in human history, and money does not tell the full story: Even when women outearn their husbands, they may still do more housework. And the worst kinds of housework.

According to a recent Pew study, between paid and unpaid labour, men and women in double-income families on average put in about the same number of hours. That sounds fair – until researchers break the unpaid labour into tasks: Basically, men coach soccer; women change diapers. Men buy groceries and mow lawns; women scrub toilets.

This pattern holds across the world: In a study of 32 countries, men were always less likely to do laundry, which is still among the most labour-intensive jobs. The gender gap in both housework and childcare narrowed when it came to pleasant, discretionary tasks that took the least time.

As one father volunteered in an interview, “Men are taking advantage of pre-existing culture to the best of their ability.”

Ms. LaLiberte’s husband, Bill Cozzens, a computer networking consultant, cheerfully calls himself “head cheerleader,” which means he drives the kids to their extracurricular activities. Ms. LaLiberte bitterly carries the title, “chief bottle washer.”

“It’s not that husbands are saying, ‘Stay barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.’ I think there’s complacency there,” she says. “When it comes to domestic labour – which is, let’s face it, drudgery – when the vacuuming gets covered, everyone is happy.”

Dirty little secrets

When The Globe and Mail sought out couples to talk about housework tensions, it was not expected to be difficult. For other stories, people have willingly shared struggles with mental illness and other family tragedies. And after all, almost everyone has experience with chores (6 per cent of Canadian men and women claim to be chore-free).

But it turns out that when you ask couples about housework they hesitate to air their dirty laundry, literally. “It's the single most rage-inducing aspect of my daily life,” one mom volunteered, then decided she’d better keep that to herself.

Raising the topic turned out to be like scraping away the surface dirt, only to find the toughest stains underneath.

Lawyer Andrew Ain and family doctor Stacie Weber, married and living in Barrie, Ont., are among the few to admit what many couples know: “If we are going to fight about anything,” Dr. Weber says, “it’s doing to be the fact that it’s midnight, and I am doing the laundry and he’s on the computer.”

The couple, who have been together for 18 years, dubbed their first dishwasher the Peacemaker 2000. And as Mr. Ain admits, “I am not the one ever giving the lecture.” He sighs: “I can oversee a $10-million deal, but I cannot clean the rice cooker properly.”

Mr. Ain also sounds a common refrain among husbands: Who decides the definition of clean?

As Mr. Cozzens puts it, “There are things we don’t see eye-to-eye over. I have been known to leave the bathroom another day only to find it cleaned and her mad. But I just think there are more important things.”

Could the balm be as easy as learning to tolerate a less-than-spotless bathroom for an extra day? Studies consistently show that couples who have responsibility over specific jobs – without input from an appraising partner – share the work more equally, and with less bickering.

But this argument suggests that if one partner just stopped nagging, the other would be naturally moved to pick up the toilet brush. If behaviour were that easily changed, there would be no marriage counsellors or divorce courts.

Women today care less about gleaming floors than their mothers and grandmothers before them. But standards remain a roadblock in the chores race, constructed by layers of cultural values.

It’s a lose-lose scenario: If women were to let go of their apparent predisposition to fuss more about dirt, they would risk failing to live up to the image of the good wife and mother who both climbs the career ladder and keeps house.

What was Mrs. Frederick’s book but a creed, ultimately, on maintaining high standards in faster times?

The spectre of the TV mom

Advertisers have been imposing a strict cleaning ideology since discovering the housewife’s buying power in the early 1900s: Doltish Dad and Multitasking Mom may run the home together (see Phil and Claire of the current sitcom Modern Family), but mom is cast as most “efficient” at housework – a backhanded compliment if ever there were one.

A 2008 study from the University of New Hampshire found that 51 per cent of television commercials featuring women were selling food and cleaning products, while only 2.1 per cent depicted a man performing a domestic task (and it was almost always child care).

Many of the women The Globe spoke to recalled doing female chores while their brothers worked outside. When most of them were growing up, after all, schools implicitly established the gender division of housework, as boys attended shop class to fix cars and girls went to home economics to make muffins.

Tamar Kremer-Sadlik is the director of research at the Center on Everyday Lives of Families at the University of California at Los Angeles and the co-editor of a recently published study called Fast-Forward Family. She puts it this way: “[Women] have been socialized to care more about the home – our identity is much more tied to how the home appears. That’s why we make our lives harder by insisting that certain things have to be done in a certain way. We have to relinquish control. We can’t expect everybody to do their share and still be the ones who decide who it is going to get done.”

One husband who describes being raised to take care of his own domestic load was Health Canada researcher Derek Hodgson, whose single mother dumped his dirty laundry in front of him in Grade 9 and pointed toward the washing machine. Mr. Hodgson now does many of the less-popular chores for his family in Ottawa, while his wife, Maria DeRosa, a chemistry professor at Carleton University, marks papers at night.

Like many wives whose husbands do more than an equal share, she is apologetic about it. “I feel guilty,” she says. “It’s always in the back of my mind that my job should be to take care of at least half of what’s happens in the house. And I am definitely not doing that. But I would not be able to give up my career to be a homemaker. I don’t know why I am so conflicted.”

Prescribed gender roles aren’t entirely fair to fathers, either. A study from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management found that dads who do more active child care and performed more chores in the house experience high levels of harassment from their male colleagues.

“Men are disparaged and viewed in less-respectful terms if they take leave and if they do more work at home,” says Jennifer Berdahl, the lead author of the study, based on surveys of Toronto union workers. “It shows why men and women might still be engaging in these traditional behaviours even if they don’t want to be, and even if it causes marital tension in the home.”

How to change that culture? Government may have no place in the bedrooms of the nation, but its social policy may help out in the kitchen. Some countries have had more success in narrowing the gender gap. Among members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada falls in the middle, beside Britain and the United States. At 146 daily minutes, Canadian men do more than the OECD average but still significantly less than women’s 248 minutes. Japan – where women’s professional aspirations are supported, but their role at home is still traditional – has one of the widest gaps. But women in Sweden have it much better: The gap in chores there is less than an hour, and shrinking.

Since 1968, Sweden’s government has taken the lead on developing gender equity, and that philosophy has had time to seep into personal behaviours. But maternal labour has also been supported by clear policies such as quality public daycare and family-friendly workplaces, including the option of reduced work weeks without penalty. Sweden has one of the world’s highest rates of maternal labour, and research has found that working moms raise boys who share chores as adults.

Sweden is not perfect – women still lean toward government jobs in which the culture overtly supports flex time, and it’s still a relatively small percentage of Swedish fathers who take the use-it-or-lose-it paternal leave.

But these policies establish the value of family time and of fatherhood as more than just an adjunct to mom. Men who spend some of the early years at home with the kids, even for a short time, are more likely to be involved in child care in the long run, which also puts them at home more to do chores.

Policy can also work against progress: In France, where men do less housework than almost anywhere in Europe, research points to the three-year parental leave that is taken almost exclusively by mothers as a contributing factor. Behaviour is habitual: French culture suggests a certain role for mothers, policy encourages them to stay home and everyone gets used to that

For its part, Canada has a widely envied parental-leave program, which is accessed by increasing numbers of fathers; a narrowing gender wage gap; universal health care; and societal support for a talented, educated pool of female workers. But Canadian families are strained by the weak support for elder care, a subpar daycare system and work hours that are only growing longer.

When asked how chores are divided in his house, Mr. Hodgson answered, “We balance life.” That’s also the lesson from Richard Abgrall and Anthony Mehnert, who have been married for eight years and have three-year-old twin boys.

In their Vancouver home, chores are split by who has the most talent and desire for the task – Mr. Mehnert in the kitchen, Mr. Abgrall as the handyman. But Mr. Abgrall also took paternity leave and handles much of the bedtime routine.

“It’s just stuff that needs to get done,” he says. Perhaps with gender stereotypes removed as a factor, it’s easier to negotiate the chore conundrum.

The strength of research on time-use data is also its weakness: It works in sweeping averages, identifying patterns over time. But it does not compare couples with each other, and it’s even fuzzy about what counts as a chore. (Mr. Ain asks hopefully, “Does refinancing the mortgage count?” His wife says no.)

But can family life really be sliced up into percentages? Is an even split even possible? “When couples live together, they are usually just trying to get through the day,” says Andrea Doucet, Canada Research Chair in Gender, Work & Care at Brock University. “It’s not like they have the chore list on the fridge and are adding everything up.”

And homes that appear unfairly balanced are not always the unhappiest. In Prof. Kremer-Sadlik’s Fast-Forward Family, California researchers analyzed the interactions of 32 middle-class, double-income families as they got through the “Arsenic Hour” from 2001 to 2004. They confirmed what other research has found: Even when women worked longer hours, earned more and still carried more of the chores, they were satisfied if they felt a sense of teamwork.

“Equity and numbers are not the best way to understand men’s and women’s relationships,” Prof. Kremer-Sadlik says.

Ultimately, it’s about choice: the freedom to negotiate what works best, right down to the laundry, with everyone getting their say. But for that to happen, it’s not enough to create the most educated generation of young people in the world, as Canada likes to claim, but to support them with social policy and workplace practices that can make those compromises work. That means reliable public daycare and a gender-neutral work culture that doesn’t penalize parents for leaving early or taking time off to deal with kids.

Families are already running at full speed, and managing chores efficiently will not come down to Mrs. Frederick’s catalogued cans in the pantry. In the family factory, it has to be about balancing the load in the most optimal way. If the last leg of the gender race will be decided at the kitchen sink, here’s hoping for a tie.

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @ErinAnderssen

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories