Lucas Center Blog

How Is Your Labor Divided?

March 25, 2020  / Bill Reynolds  / Tags: household, covid, labor, burden, equity, parenting, gender


It’s a-week-and-a-half into remote instruction at FGCU, and many of us have established, or at least attempted to initiate, new routines that may feel very different than those we’re used to. Working from home has different rhythms than an office or a classroom--rhythms which for many of us are now frequently interrupted by discordant noises emanating from little people, who have a completely different understanding of what it means to “Zoom.” We find ourselves having to manage their schedules as well as our own, and in addition to teacher, researcher, manager, and administrator, we may be rapidly (and inadequately) cultivating the skills of the referee, short-order cook, maintenance worker (more time at home, more broken stuff), and public health worker, to name just a few. And, even if we don’t have kids, many of us are spending hours more than usual with spouses, partners, and roommates, both human and animal. (Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said on Sunday: “I live alone. I’m even getting annoyed with the dog, being in one place.”)


Given this relatively sudden and generally unwelcome change in circumstances, what kinds of conversations have you had with the folks in your households about who does what around the house while you’re working remotely? If you haven’t actually had this talk, my suspicion is that there is an imbalance of the division of labor in your household. (And even if you have had this talk this imbalance may persist.) Simply stated, women will take on more of the domestic responsibilities, even when the female partner is the primary earner for the family. In fact, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development women in the U.S. spend about four hours a day on unpaid work, compared with about 2.5 hours for men. I would not be surprised if these numbers increase substantially for women who are now working remotely, even if their male partners are home, too.


Women in academe may find this inequity particularly galling, given that in their professional lives the responsibility of service, perhaps the academic equivalent of household chores, is also disproportionately borne by those of their gender. A 2017 study found that, on average, women perform significantly more service than men, and that much of this gap was explained by a disparity in internal service to the institution. Service, whether at work or home, is often about care, so a reasonable question, especially under current condition, might be “Who cares for the caregivers?”


Given the multiple sources of stress associated with the coronavirus pandemic, none of us needs to be additionally burdened by anger and resentment over doing more than our fair share, and all of us need to experience more care. Awareness that an imbalance exists, verbally acknowledging it, and making a plan to even the domestic playing field is one fairly straightforward path to greater harmony on the home front through communication and care. However, it also may matter which responsibilities are distributed to which partner. For example, “Women who wash the vast majority of the dishes themselves report more relationship conflict, less relationship satisfaction, and even worse sex, than women with partners who help. [Editorial comment: I love this. The implication is that the sex is already bad, but it’s ‘even worse’ when male partners don’t do the dishes.]. Women are happier about sharing dishwashing duties than they are about sharing any other household task” (Kitchener, 2018). So, gentlemen, if you want to contribute to greater domestic harmony during these stressful times, the evidence is clear: At least as far as chores go, doing the dishes has the most relationship-enhancing potential of any household chore. And, while you’re at it, see if you can relieve your female colleagues of some of the service burden at work, too.

wash hands