Women Are Often Remarkably Reluctant to Ask for Help Around the House

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A new study shows that high-earning women are more likely to let their houses be messy than to hire a housekeeper or get their husbands and kids to pitch in.

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"The baby's been easy," Marissa Mayer told Fortune's Patricia Sellers last November, two months after her son's birth and four months after she became the CEO of Yahoo!. "The baby's been way easier than everyone made it out to be."

Mayer's two-week maternity leave, during which she worked remotely, had already been widely debated, but by the time she declared a newborn was "easy," a consensus was reached: Mayer, a 37-year old with an estimated net worth of $300 million, must employ an extraordinary amount of support. Surely there had to be a team of nannies, night nurses, housekeepers, and personal assistants enabling Mayer to "have it all."

People assume that women who earn high wages outsource a good deal of domestic responsibilities, but Harvard sociologist Alexandra Killewald found this "buying-out hypothesis" to be overblown, particularly when it came to housework.

"It's a very reasonable idea, but there are other choices," Killewald said of the buying-out theory, which was popularized in the 1990s. In the last decade, sociologists have noticed a negative association between women's earnings and their time on housework. A $10,000 increase in a woman's salary is associated with a predicted decline in her combined cooking and cleaning time of only .4 hours. In other words, something is obviously prohibiting a continued decline in housework time as women's earnings rise.

"You can purchase substitutes for your own time, you can get your husband to do more, or you can all just do less," Killewald says. "Whether women outsource housework in particular has less to do with resources, but whether or not paid labor is viewed as an appropriate strategy for undertaking domestic work.

Doing less housework seems to be a popular option. In an article "Opting Out and Buying Out: Wives' Earnings and Housework Time" for the Journal of Marriage and Family, Killewald wrote that "households make choices about, for example, the degree of cleanliness of the home and the quality of the food that household members consume.". Among mature adults, she found that 97 percent reported spending money on dining out, while 56 percent said they spent some on cleaning or laundry services.

"My house is quite a sty," said Kathleen M. Brown, professor of history and author of Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America, "but there's a missing piece here. You don't relax the standards you think are crucial to health."

Lowering standards of cleanliness should not be misinterpreted as living in filth, or any damaging environment. "Lower standards may mean clutter or dust, or some like degree of disorder, but not living in a way that breeds illness," Brown said.

And yet, if they can afford it, why aren't these women outsourcing housework so that they have an organized, sparkling home that creates more leisure time?

Gender norms and perceived societal expectations of wives and mothers may play a role. In a 2010 article, "Money isn't everything: Wives' earnings and housework time," Killewald wrote that "women spend considerable time in housework in spite of their financial resources: their earnings buy significantly less relief than a linear relationship between earnings and housework would predict.

Housework has a performative quality to it, and conforming to traditional gender norms may produce social and psychological rewards. This is true for Killewald, who said while she and her husband often cook meals together, when her mother-in-law is expected for dinner, she not only cooks the meal, but urges her husband to make it clear that she was the chef. "That's important to me because I'm showing [my mother-in-law] that I'm a good wife," she said. "Those expectations don't fall on fathers and men."

Women could "outsource" cleaning to their husbands or children, but that is unusual. Regardless of the hours worked or salary, a woman still maintains ownership over the domestic sphere, meaning she dictates who does what, and when. "Because she is the manager of the household, it implicitly grants him permission not to do as much," Killewald said. A woman reducing her standards signals the same is permissible of her partner, even though she was likely spending more time on household responsibilities to begin with.

This seems to point to a plausible explanation for why high-wage earners aren't outsourcing to members of their family or employing more paid labor: The opportunity costs may be too great.

Working women could press the issue of a more egalitarian division of labor with their husbands, but Brown thinks these working mothers may be making a conscious decision not to. Homes already represent a "second shift," so if a woman comes home after a full day of work to enjoy her family, the last thing she wants to do is fight her husband about housework.

Likewise, when one is paying someone to clean their house and cook their food, they have different expectations. If the house is not as noticeably clean as one would expect for the expense of a housekeeper, or the food ordered out is not as good as it should be, it would not only be frustrating, and yet another thing to manage.

Just as husbands could be assigned more work, so could children. Historically, children took on substantial tasks within the home by the time they were seven or eight years old. "For the first time, this isn't a part of the conversation because we don't see a full roster of chores as improving childhood," said Brown, herself a mother of young children. "I spend a lot of time thinking about the ways my precious little angels can develop themselves, and that includes being a relaxed entertainer when their friends come over and trash the place." Brown is purposefully cultivating a home in which her children want to socialize. That way, she can keep an eye on them throughout their teenage years, hopeful this will mean they emerge unscathed.

Women are unlikely to curtail the attention given to children, and as such, they are less likely to skimp on family meals. Killewald wrote that "cleaning is a more uniformly undesirable activity, whereas some forms of cooking are enjoyable for at least some wives." Some of the satisfaction garnered from cooking may stem from real enjoyment, but part of preparing meals for one's family is ensuring that children have proper diets. Working mothers may not trust that prepackaged meals cooked by others, whether it be housekeepers, markets, or restaurants, will adhere to the same standard.

Women of different socioeconomic backgrounds may log the same amount of hours in the workplace, but low-wage earners continue to spend more time on housework. Explanations for this are myriad, but Killewald suspects it has to do with a sense of pride. Perhaps a scientist gets far less satisfaction from having a clean home than her high-prestige career. And, of course, a high wage means that socializing can take place outside of the home with frequency, whereas a woman earning a lower wage is more likely to host friends and family in her home than a restaurant.

These kinds of studies are illuminating, but identifying the problem is only half of the battle. "The next step has to be having that managerial role more equally divided between husbands and wives," Killewald said.

Change may not be generations away. As the average marriage age rises, men are now living on their own for longer than ever before, which means they are building the necessary skills to manage an adult home. Co-managing the household is indeed a lofty goal, but it is more attainable than ever.

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Alexis Coe is a writer in San Francisco and a columnist for SF Weekly.

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