A recent international report suggests men need to increase their time spent doing unpaid care work by a minimum of 50 minutes per day in order to do 50 per cent of the work. The report calls for bold measures to help all men do their fair share of this work by 2030 and thus promote gender equality. So what do we know about how modern couples in the UK divide unpaid domestic work and the drivers behind that? A new study from Anne McMunn at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at University College London investigates why greater workplace equality has not yet been matched by a more equitable division of labour at home.
Some studies suggest education is the key to equality within the home – that women with better education, and therefore greater earning power, are in a stronger negotiating position when it comes to housework.
But that theory doesn’t entirely hold water – it’s clear that even when women are better educated than their partners, they’re still likely to bear the heaviest burden when it comes to domestic labour.
Similarly, it’s been suggested that domestic work is divided according to time available – so when a male partner works longer hours, the female does more housework. But again, the reverse doesn’t hold true and women who work more hours outside the home still do more housework too.
We used the UK Household Longitudinal Study, which has surveyed around 40,000 households since 2010, to examine a number of hypotheses about why greater workplace equality hasn’t been matched by a more equitable division of labour at home.
Does a shared belief in equality make a difference? As men are often asked, in the modern world, to do more domestic labour, are their beliefs a driving factor? What is the role of education, if any, in how couples divide up these tasks? If one partner is resistant to sharing the work, is the other empowered by having a higher level of education?
Using opposite-sex couples in the study who were aged 16-65 and had answered the relevant questions, gave us a sample of 8,513 couples. We looked at four types of work to give us a full picture of the labour those couples did: housework, paid employment, childcare and adult care – for instance, caring for an older relative.We used a technique that allowed us to see what groups emerged from the data to see how contemporary British couples share or divide these different types of work.
We also categorized our couples according to their answers to a series of ideological questions – were they both similarly traditional, egalitarian or middling, or was one partner more egalitarian while the other was more traditional?
Then we looked at their levels of education – were both equally educated, was the woman more highly educated or was the man more highly educated?
Very few of the couples shared work equally. In just six per cent of couples, the woman was the main earner while domestic tasks were shared quite evenly. These women were likely to be more highly-educated than their partners. In a further one per cent of couples the man remained at home and did more than 20 hours’ domestic labour. Even in those cases, around two thirds of the women also did some domestic work.
However, these stay-at-home men were quite likely to be caring for an adult – four out of ten of them provided more than 20 hours’ care per week. Only 30 per cent of female-earner couples had children under 16 living at home, and of those just a quarter of men had the main responsibility for childcare. Men in this group did more housework than in some other groups, but they still did less than their partners.
Almost half (49 per cent) of couples were dual-earner couples in which both members of the couple tended to be employed full-time but these couples were less likely than traditional couples to have children at home.
Traditional divisions of labour
About 30 per cent of couples were traditional in the division of work with men working full-time and women not employed or working short hours. These couples tended to have dependent children at home and women in this couples did large amounts of housework, and in a small minority of women in these couples doing over 20 hours of housework per week.
A small group of couples (two per cent) also emerged in which women worked part-time and men worked very long hours at 60 hours per week or more. These women had more responsibility for care, and more for housework.
The third most common group, at 13 per cent, was a slightly older group of couples in their fifties or early sixties, in which neither were working full-time and there was little or no care responsibility. Women in these couples did relatively high levels of housework, suggesting that these couples may have previously followed a traditional gender division of work.
Those couples who didn’t have shared egalitarian beliefs – either both had traditional views or one did but the other didn’t – were more likely to fall into a more traditional work pattern.
What about education?
Men who were better-educated than their partners were more likely to fall into the traditional working patterns, and men with lower educational qualifications than their partners were more likely to stay at home. And these traditional patterns were even more likely to pertain when the man was more highly-educated and both shared traditional views.
So, education makes a difference, and so does a shared ideology. But it is important to note that very few men, in any category, did longer hours of domestic work than their female partner. So when it comes to housework and caring, gender equality remains rare and gender norms remain strong.
Our beliefs may form a starting point for shaping our behavior, but that’s only a starting point, and not a solution. The ‘bold’ 50 minutes for 50 percent suggestion in the State of the World’s Fathers report, certainly seems to be grabbing the bull by the horns and, like our research, points clearly to the need for urgent change in terms of who does the daily care work in our homes. That is if we genuinely want a significant shift in power relations between men and women and to bring about gender equality.
Gender divisions of paid and unpaid work in contemporary UK couples is research by Anne McMunn, Lauren Webb, Elizabeth Webb and Amanda Sacker is published in the journal, Work, Employment and Society.