The XX Factor

Study Shows People Divide Chores by Gender Norms, Even for Gay Couples

A femme.

If an actual glass ceiling breaks in a couple’s home, which partner sweeps up the shards? According to a new study from Indiana University, most Americans would give that duty to the woman. Study participants who read sample marriage scenarios assigned more chores in general—especially traditionally “feminine” chores such as cleaning, cooking, and child care—to women, even in scenarios that described straight couples where the woman earned more money than the man. Nearly 75 percent of participants thought women in straight couples should be the ones to buy groceries, cook, do laundry, and clean the house; nearly 90 percent thought their male partners should do the auto work and outdoor tasks.

Gendered housework stereotypes run so deep that even members of fictional same-sex couples got assigned certain chores over others based on how feminine or masculine their interests were. A man who likes shopping and rom-coms, for instance, would get stuck with washing dishes and grocery shopping, while his basketball-playing, guns and explosions–loving husband got to breathe the crisp fall air as he mowed the lawn.

The authors of the study were taken aback by the results; they expected income to play a larger role in housework division. “Most research on housework suggests that couples divide housework along different axes; for example, lower-earning partners do more housework than higher-earning partners,” study author Natasha Quadlin told the Huffington Post. “Instead, our findings suggest that [gender] is by far the biggest determinant of Americans’ attitudes toward housework.”

The representative sample of 1,025 participants did expect higher-earning partners to take care of finances while lower-earning partners did more cooking, cleaning, and laundry, but the chore disparity was far more affected by gender and gender presentation. Female breadwinners were still expected to do more household chores and child care than their lower-earning male partners; 75 percent of participants said the straight female partner should take care of laundry while only 57 percent assigned it to the lower-earning partner. The only aspect of child care that a slight majority of participants assigned to men was discipline.

As long as there have been gender-disaggregated data about housework, they have shown that women do more of it, especially when it comes to traditionally feminine chores. But this study’s inclusion of same-sex couples, relative income, and information about gendered interests proves that the chore gap is strongly connected to gender norms and can’t be explained away by income differences. In scenarios involving straight couples, participants had gender outweigh gendered interests when it came to divvying up chores: Women who loved sports still had to do more feminine chores than male partners who baked cookies in their spare time. Among gay couples, lacking a traditional mold in which to shape household labor division, participants’ brains shorted out and defaulted to other recognizable stereotypes: They tasked the more feminine partner of either gender with meeting the physical and emotional needs of children.

Straights have long presumed that the preferences and practices of same-sex couples fall along traditional gendered lines—ask the members any gay couple how often they’ve been asked “who wears the dress” or “who’s the man” in the relationship. Gender norms are some of the first social cues kids learn; I’ll never forget the time a 6-year-old girl saw my more masculine partner sitting on my lap and, wonderfully unmoved by the sight of two women showing romantic affection, still told us we should switch places because it would “look right” if the one in the dress was on top.

This new study also provides another example of how rigid gender expectations hurt men: Even if straight-guy Bobby likes to bake, his peers still think his wife should be the family cook. And what if Bobby’s wife is the better car mechanic? Fans of clean houses, working automobiles, and delicious baked goods must not stand for this.