If the household chore gap was merely a matter of men learning how to properly clean a cast-iron pan, it would be relatively easy to remedy. Instead, this gap is largely the product of the hard-to-shake, and deeply embedded, belief that women are responsible for domestic realm. Heart-to-heart conversations with one’s partner, charts neatly dividing up who does the laundry and bathes the children, and even progressive paid-leave and childcare policies can only get a couple so far when the world around them views domestic work as women’s work. But that world has changed over the past several decades—and a new study shows that the amount of time men and women spend on housework has changed, too.
A team from the University of Oxford looked into changes in the housework gap in 19 countries over the past 50 years and discovered a encouraging movement towards gender equality in every single one. Relying on data from the Multinational Time Use Study, the researchers focused on countries in Western and Eastern Europe, along with the United States, Canada, and Israel, and accounted for a number of variables, including educational attainment, employment, marital status, number of children under the age of 18, and number of children under the age of five. All countries have shown a sharp decline in the gender gap in minutes spent on housework, with (predictably) the Scandinavian countries and (less predictably) the United States leading the way.
The researchers looked only at hours spent cleaning, cooking, and washing clothes, “because these are both the most disliked domestic labour activities and the most traditionally feminine” and therefore “most resistant to change.” They believe that the measurement of such activities not only tells us what is going on in people’s homes, but also reflects the evolution of gender roles in general and whether the movement towards equality is progressing or, as some claim, stalled.
They found that the time women spend on core housework has largely decreased over the past 50 years, and the time men spend has increased—though not as steeply as the decrease for women. There is more variation in hours spent on housework by women among the different countries studied than by men, likely a product of national policies and ideologies surrounding gender. For example, up until the first decade of the 21st century women in Italy and Spain did far more housework than women in other countries. Italian and Spanish men did less than men in other countries, but the difference wasn’t as big.
The researchers also found that the gap in household chore gap persists, and has been shrinking at a slower pace in a number of the countries since the 1990s. In 2011, the last year they looked at, women continue to do, on average, two hours more of housework per day than men. Even when they adjust for a woman’s employment status, time spent falls by only ten minutes.
The most important takeaway for the researchers is that while the movement towards equal division of housework has slowed down, it has not stalled. They reject the idea that there is an “absolute ceiling effect” for gender equality and believe instead that further changes to “social policy, management culture, and gender ideology constraints” can help families, and countries, close the gap. This isn’t an easy, or quick, solution, but it’s one that seems to be working.