A simple image search on the internet for “housework” returns a myriad of photos of a vacuum rigorously used on a carpet, piles of laundry in a basket being carried down a bustling hallway of a rummaged house, dishes looming over a dirty sink in the process of being cleaned.
Who is the central character in these photos? Mostly women.
Countless research articles, news articles and surveys have shown how women conduct the bulk of housework around the world – which typically consists of “pink jobs” such as housekeeping or cooking. Women also experience different stressors and burdens on their time compared to men. However, during the pandemic, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope that men in households were contributing more equally (although this also depended on the type of task). Indeed, in recent years, there appears to have been a gender convergence – women appear to be doing less housework and men doing more.
In their 2019 study, researchers from the University British Columbia explored what factors might explain this convergence using time use data from Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey (GSS) from 1986 to 2015. Time use data is gathered when respondents are asked to record all their activities (and time spent on these activities) in a 24-hour period.
One of their key findings is that there are structural changes happening in household labour. Women have had increased involvement in the labour market over the last 30 years. Simultaneously, men have had a significant uptake in domestic duties, and take on shorter hours in a paid job. This is what the authors note as “symmetry trumps asymmetry,” where both women and men have altered their behaviours – women are doing less housework and men are doing more.
The study also reveals which forms of domestic labour are affected by gender convergence. While household labour can range from housekeeping, cooking, cleaning, maintenance and childcaring, “women’s work” is typically designated as housekeeping or childcaring. In their analysis, these researchers find that even “women’s work” is showing a gender convergence in terms of time spent on these duties. However, the authors caution there might still be further areas of exploration to undertake, as specific childcare duties might still be experiencing unequal time and contributions.
“Women still do the brunt of the work. In other words, this work is still unbalanced. The revolution for equal work is therefore incomplete.”
Equally interesting is how factors of cultural and demographic changes do not have significant explanatory power on gender convergence in the household division of labour. The researchers explored how cultural factors, such as the “silent revolution” of shifting values in society, have resulted in greater egalitarian values between men and women and a focus on human rights. This may have changed how men view historically gendered work, and their involvement and participation. In this study, however, findings show that in Canada, cultural factors have not had as dramatic an effect on changes in housework and childcare as women’s increased participation in the labour market. Demographic factors also have an impact on the changing dynamics around childcare – having children increases domestic work — but this affects both men and women.
Does this mean that gender equality has been achieved when it comes to the gendered division of labour? Not quite. The researchers end on the note that while they see strong support of a gender convergence in household labour, women still do the brunt of the work. In other words, this work is still unbalanced. The revolution for equal work is therefore incomplete.
Beyond measuring time for household tasks, there might also be implications for “invisible work” – work that goes on unnoticed and unacknowledged in the background, such as planning to organize childcare, or preparing a grocery list to make sure the fridge is stocked. Future research into understanding the gendered division of labour should also consider the emotional and the mental work it requires, beyond the physical.
The researchers also note in a recent conversation that the future implications and research agenda for understanding this gendered division of labour might concern who is in a household. Many families in our society are now no longer composed of the traditional, nuclear household – for example, single parents experience the division of household labour in an entirely different way. How we define “equality” needs to be continually examined. While the uneven allocation of housework is an indicator of inequality between men and women, the researchers encourage thinking beyond simply men and women’s household labour, but also looking at other areas where equality should be achieved. How are other marginalized populations, such as migrant populations, coming in to take on the responsibility of household labour by performing low-wage, precarious work? Is equality accessible for all?
“How are other marginalized populations, such as migrant populations, coming in to take on the responsibility of household labour by performing low-wage, precarious work?”
In the last 30 years, structural factors that have impacted women’s entry into the labour market have indeed helped with the gender convergence of domestic labour. However, the researchers also note that the nuances of family life still need to be further studied. The current measurements of willingness to engage in housework and the time spent on such work are important, but future research and policies can explore the intricacies and richness of diverse family lives and arrangements and their contribution to gender equality in housework.
While there might be improvements in gender equality in household labour, we should caution against celebrating too soon. This research shows glimmers of hope that we are moving in the right direction, but there is still work to do.
Research brief prepared by:
Social Change and the Gendered Division of Household Labor in Canada
Neil Guppy, Larissa Sakumoto, Rima Wilkes
Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue canadienne de sociologie