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.

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

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