Fair division of labor is considered key to a successful marriage, according to Pew Research Polls. (Other top sources consistently include a satisfying sex life). But what does fair mean exactly? And does the division of labor change over time?
Here are four findings about division of labor among couples, suggesting that perceptions, comparisons, and transitions all play a role.
1. Couples don’t always agree on how the division of labor is actually divided. In one classic study of 37 married heterosexual couples, researchers asked members of couples to report on the division of labor within their marriage for a variety of different activities, such as making breakfast and deciding how money should be spent.
When they looked added up each partner’s reported contributions within a couple, the average amount was greater than 100%, suggesting each partner is overestimating their own contributions. People also gave significantly more examples of contributions they made to the relationship than contributions their partners made.
This finding is an example of egocentric bias—it’s much easier for people to see and recall their own contributions. In contrast, they are likely to forget or miss many of the contributions that their partner takes on.
2. Fairness comparisons aren’t always to one’s partner. Researchers in Japan, a country with conservative gender values, found that Japanese women’s perception of fairness depends on social comparisons outside the couple. In the study of 1,496 married women, women’s sense of fairness depended on their perception of others with similar life circumstances.
The more they saw others as doing more household chores, the more they felt their own situations was fair, and the happier they were with it. This was true even for women who did not hold traditional gender values.
3. The transition to parenthood appears to change the division of labor. Researchers tracked 182 dual-earner heterosexual couples from before to after the birth of their first child. Pre-baby, men and women in this study spent relatively similar amounts of time on household tasks. Nine months after the baby was born, women were spending significantly more time on household tasks as well as all tasks related to childcare. Men spent more time on paid work both before and after the baby was born.
One note: the pre-baby estimates were done during the third trimester, so it’s possible that this doesn’t reflect the typical division of labor when women aren’t pregnant.
4. People may overestimate how much time they spend on household and childcare tasks. Another interesting finding from this study was the discrepancy between how much time they perceived they’d spent on tasks versus time they’d actually spent. All participants estimated the number of hours they spent on housework and childcare. Then they actually tracked their time for two 24-hour periods (a workday and a non-workday).
The result was that people tended to substantially over-perceive how much time they spend on household and childcare work. For example, pre-baby, both men and women actually spent about 14.5 hours on housework but estimated that they spent 21-22 hours. After the baby was born, women spent about 13.5 hours on housework, but estimated they’d spent about 27 hours. Men spent about 9.5 hours and estimated they’d spent about 35 hours. For childcare, women estimated they’d spent 21.8 hours, but actually spent 8.4 hours on it. Men estimated they’d spent about 14 hours and actually reported spending 7.7 hours.
Most of the research on division of labor in couples has focused on gender differences in heterosexual couples, given how gendered the division of labor has been historically. However, researchers are increasingly looking at division of labor in same-sex couples, where gender norms don’t play the same role. These studies tend to find that division of labor is more equitable among same-sex couples, but inequality becomes more pronounced when one partner earns more, especially among couples with children.
How is COVID-19 affecting labor division?
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a major transition for many couples as both partners spend an increased amount of time at home, some without a job, some working from home. How has this transition impacted the division of labor among couples? With both partners home, do people expect a more equal division of labor? And are they achieving it? These are some of the questions my colleagues and I are trying to answer in our study examining how cohabiting couples are coping during COVID-19 (participate and see results here.). Initial results suggest division of labor may be becoming more equal, at least for the couples in our sample.