For all the discussion about women working outside the home — indeed, more Aussie women are participating in the workforce than ever before, according to Prime Minister Turnbull — the fact remains that even when both partners are working, women do a lot more housework than men. Cooking dinner, doing laundry and scrubbing the shower may seem inconsequential, but time allocated to housework has important consequences for gender (in)equality.
This is because women, especially mothers, spend more time doing unpaid housework, and are therefore less able to increase hours in paid employment. This places them at a greater financial risk if partnerships split, especially as they age. Women who share the housework with their partners are more likely to translate domestic equality into greater professional opportunities outside the home. Not to mention, they get to enjoy more sleep.
Why women do more
According to research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), there is widespread agreement that housework should be shared when both parents work. In reality, however, full-time working women clock up an average of 25 hours of housework each week compared to 15 hours for full-time working men. When paid and unpaid work is combined, full-time working women spend 6.4 more hours working per week than men. The trend holds for households where men are the main breadwinners, both people earn the same amount and, perhaps unexpectedly, women are the main breadwinners. In households where women work part-time or not at all to take care of children, it’s no surprise to learn they do even more housework.
“Don’t bring him breakfast in bed or really make the house feel like a home for this union, because what happens is the allocation of housework at the beginning of the relationship sticks over time.
Curiously, the AIFS research found mothers believe the division of housework is fair, despite the obvious inequity.
“We find in the literature that men are more likely to overestimate their contribution and women are more likely to underestimate their contribution,” says Professor Lyn Craig, director of the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.
“Men are likely to not realise the scale of the job, while women are more likely to know the scale of the job, but it seems there's some reluctance to characterise their partner as not pulling his own weight so they minimise their own contribution.”
When a baby comes along, even the most liberal, forward-thinking couples can revert to traditional gender roles that are typically associated with more housework for women, says Dr Leah Ruppanner, a senior lecturer in sociology at The University of Melbourne.
“Before you have a baby, many people say it's important for women to actively engage in the labour market but once people have kids, the same people then start to report more traditional expectations about gender, such as ‘it’s important for a child to have their mother home with them’,” Dr Ruppaner says.
The case for change
Dr Ruppanner says couples who make a conscious choice to split housework equally give the female partner more time to devote to paid employment, as well as the key ingredients of a happy life that often go missing when you need to clean the bathroom: leisure time and sleep.
“The additional housework that children bring or the additional housework that women end up doing when they move into a home with a man means that they're subtracting time from something else that they were doing,” Dr Ruppanner says.
“If you can equalise the stuff in the home, there are really strong economic and health consequences.”
When it comes to implementing the change, Professor Craig suggests both partners keep a diary to record the number of hours devoted to housework and make changes accordingly.
“If housework and care were more equally divided, then a lot could follow from that,” she says.
Women who share the housework with their partners are more likely to translate domestic equality into greater professional opportunities outside the home.
Dr Ruppanner says committing to equal division of housework during life’s big changes will help to cement the practice.
“When you move in with your partner or when you have a baby, or any of these critical life junctures – but particularly when you move in with your spouse – don’t play house,” she says.
“Don’t bring him breakfast in bed or really make the house feel like a home for this union, because what happens is the allocation of housework at the beginning of the relationship sticks over time. So if you start out with inequality, you're going to have inequality over the duration of the relationship.”
Dr Ruppanner adds that not penalising women for messy homes or men for not doing as good a job as women will help to ease the domestic burden of housework.
“It's not like it's actually that hard to figure out how to clean a toilet or wipe down a bench.”