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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 ...

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.

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