and housework mutually exclusive? Must a wife always be considered a child's
primary caregiver? Is equality among domestic partners an unrealistic goal?
Francine M. Deutsch, professor of psychology and education, answers with
a resounding "No!" "Though inequality persists," she says, "there are couples
who share parenting, housework, and all other aspects of domestic labor equally."
Deutsch teaches a seminar on gender and domestic labor, and is working on
a book about egalitarian parenting. She tackled the topic before in a 1993
study, "Husbands at Home," written in collaboration with Julie Baker Lussier
MA '90 and Laura Servis '91.
In her sample of sixty-six married couples with infants, the men doing the most housework were typically those whose wives made salaries comparable to their husbands', and whose wives asked them to take responsibility for household chores. Fathers most involved in childcare were those who believed in egalitarian roles and whose wives worked a significant number of hours outside the home.
Despite the presence of some "equal sharer" couples, however, Deutsch's study echoes others in finding that husbands do relatively little domestic labor of any kind compared with their wives. "Even today, with the huge number of women in the workforce, the norm is still for women to have more responsibility for childcare and housework than their husbands do," according to Deutsch. "Men may be doing more than they used to, but they're not doing an equal share."
Both economic and social factors conspire to maintain inequality, Deutsch says. First, most people expect the mother to be a child's primary caregiver. "Also, men are more likely than women to pursue careers without any thought of how it will affect their family life," she explains. "Women will often preclude certain careers because they can't see how they could combine them with family. Therefore, women end up in more flexible careers, so that when it comes time for someone to stay home with the kids, it 'makes more sense' for the woman to do so." And the fact that most women earn less than their husbands makes them even more likely than men to quit their jobs or reduce their workload to handle childrearing.
Husbands typically take one of three general approaches to household labor,
she says: "I'll do it if she asks me"; "She assigned me this job and I'll
do it"; or "I'll think ahead about what needs to be done and then take care
of it." Deutsch explains, "It's this last level that men are least likely
to do, though there are some men who fully share even the management of domestic
responsibilities." Scholars estimate that no more than 20 percent of dual-income
couples share domestic work equally, and Deutsch has some suggestions on
how to increase the percentage.
Feel entitled to equality, then fight for it. "Sometimes equality comes at the cost of a struggle," she reminds, "but there are costs to not engaging in a struggle as well. It's not necessarily bad to fight over who does the dishes." She's found that gender roles can change dramatically even in long-established relationships.
"As a society we need to change what we think a career is. We need families in which both men and women care about what's going on in the family as well as at work."
Men must cut back on just trying to maximize career success. "In equal-sharing couples, both partners made career compromises for their families. Men have a lot to gain in relationships with their wives and children, but they also have to give up some things."
Social class, her research reveals, doesn't affect how much parenting men do, but it does predict how they talk about their domestic involvement. "Middle class men are more likely to pay lip service to equality without following through with actions," Deutsch found. "Working class men are more likely to say traditional things, but to actually do more than their words imply."
Last year, Deutsch and students in her Research Methods in Social Psychology course conducted a study that found that people are starting to expect more from fathers. "I think we're in a lag period when people's ideas are changing but it'll take a while for their behavior to catch up," Deutsch says. "For highly educated men especially--who are more likely to talk of equality--the struggle is to get the everyday, less glamorous parts of life to match the grand rhetoric." Hmmm...who's doing the laundry at your house tonight?