Within straight couples, who does what around the house can appear to depend on personal situations and individual arrangements. Work schedules and habits are considered—sometimes consciously, sometimes not—and a pattern of domestic work emerges. We may not always like the outcome, but many of us slog through them with the belief that we mainly have ourselves and our partners to blame.
But a new paper from sociologists Leah Ruppanner and David J. Maume published in Social Science Research suggests that division of housework is heavily influenced by a number of outside factors, including where we live. Ruppaner and Maume write that research on domestic work in the United States often treats the country as a single entity, when, in fact, the division of housework varies widely around the country. By comparing housework patterns from state to state, they discovered that the amount of time a woman spends on domestic chores is connected to how likely women are to work in that state and how culturally traditional or progressive the state is.
In states where women have more labor market power, married men spend more time on housework and mothers spend less. In more culturally traditional states, mothers spend more time on housework and married men spend less. Importantly, these patterns hold true regardless of whether a woman is employed.
For example, stay-at-home moms in states where women are more likely to work do less housework than stay-at-home moms in states where women are less likely to work. Stay-at-home moms in Utah (where women are less likely to work) spend, on average, an hour more per week than those in Maryland (where women are more likely to work). Also, full-time working moms in culturally traditional states do more housework than full-time working moms in culturally progressive states. Full-time working moms in more traditional Mississippi spend an average of 87 more minutes per week on housework than full-time working moms in less traditional New Hampshire.
Ruppanner and Maume figured this out by comparing data from the American Time Use Survey with three state-level indexes, including female labor force empowerment, family traditionalism, and state government liberalism. They determined the first by evaluating things such as the percentage of female CEOs, the percentage of women with college educations, the percentage of women in management, the gender wage gap, the percentage of births to mothers ages 35 to 50, the median marriage age, the percentage of women working full-time, and the percentage of mothers of infants working full-time.
Family traditionalism was determined by looking at things such as the marriage rate (which is higher in more traditional states), the percent of the population who regularly attend church, the percent of single mothers below the poverty line (higher in more traditional states), and the fertility rate (higher in more traditional states). And state government liberalism was determined by evaluating the party position of elected officials and recent voting records.
“Housework is important because it is unpaid, highly gendered and is often at the expense of women’s time in employment (economic consequences) and leisure (health consequences),” Ruppanner told me in an email. “In this paper, we show that women can’t just up-skill their way out of housework (get more college education, enter the labor market, etc.). Rather the cultures and structures around them—access to the labor force, equal pay, having more women represent them in government—are really important.”
“So, if you are going to have a baby, move to Maryland :),” she concluded.
Globally, women spend an average of 4.5 hours a day on unpaid work, which is more than double than what men spend. In the United States, women spend around four hours a day on chores, compared with around 2.5 hours for men. This gap doesn’t just exhaust women, it also economically disadvantages them. As Claire Cain Miller points out in the New York Times, the less time women spend on unpaid work, the more time they have to go to school and enter the labor force. “Women could do more paid work and get more education if men did more unpaid work, or if both did fewer chores,” she writes.
In Bill and Melinda Gates’ recent annual letter, Melinda issues a call to action on the unpaid work gap: “Unless things change, girls today will spend hundreds of thousands more hours than boys doing unpaid work simply because society assumes it’s their responsibility,” she writes. Her proposed solution is to: “Recognize that unpaid work is still work. Reduce the amount of time and energy it takes. And redistribute it more evenly between women and men.”
Gates says technology has and will do a lot to relieve women of their unpaid labor—and the foundation has plans to help set this in motion by providing contraceptives and cellphones for women in developing countries—but it’s not enough. The real change, she says, lies in readjusting our cultural norms, or “change what we think of as normal.”
Ruppanner and Baume’s research makes to it clear that this shift won’t come about just by changing individual minds. Instead, we need a large-scale, multipronged systemic overhaul, one that targets our workplaces, churches, governments, and homes, guided by one simple truth: Women’s time is just as valuable as men’s.