Boys With Sisters Are Less Likely to Do Chores When They Grow Up

How gender roles in childhood affect gender roles in adulthood
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This guy probably has brothers (Rex Roof/flickr)

Before my husband and I got married, we each filled out a long questionnaire about what gender roles were like in our homes growing up. Who worked for money: mom, dad, or both? Who stayed home with the kids? Who did the yard work? Who made the bed? Who scheduled social events? Who planned vacations?

This exercise was supposed to help us figure out our expectations for our own marriage. If my dad was in charge of taking out the trash while I was growing up, it's likely I would expect my husband to do the same. If my husband's mom was the one who handled family finances, it's likely he would expect me to do the same. And so on. It was valuable for us to discuss these expectations before we got married, so we could be prepared.

The questionnaire did not ask us about our siblings and how they shaped our expectations about who does what. There were no questions about how we divided chores with our siblings, and whether there were differences in what our parents expected their sons and daughters to do around the house. But there probably should have been. According to a paper in the latest issue of the Journal of Politics, siblings can have a noticeable impact on how a person sees the world as an adult. The paper, "Childhood Socialization and Political Attitudes: Evidence from a Natural Experiment" by Andrew Healy and Neil Malhotra, analyzes decades of longitudinal data on families and finds that the effect sisters have on their brothers is particularly striking.

Brothers with sisters are more likely to have traditional expectations for gender roles on a variety of metrics, the paper found. They're more likely to agree with the statement "Mothers should remain at home with young children and not work outside the home." As adults, they're more likely to place the burdens of cooking, cleaning, and other chores on their wives. (They're also more likely to become Republicans, probably as a result of their views on gender roles, according to Malhotra: "Gender roles are a big part of the way the parties have sorted themselves these days.")

"Men with sisters appear to do less household work, even in middle age," the authors wrote. "Men with sisters were 17 percentage points (p=.063) more likely to say that their spouse did more housework, suggesting that the gendered environment from childhood may have permanently altered men's conception of gender roles."

Why does this happen? The paper suggests that parents treat their sons and daughters differently. Boys with sisters are less likely to be asked to help with chores than boys without sisters. The difference is largest with one chore in particular, for whatever reason: doing the dishes. Boys with sisters are about 13 percent less likely to do the dishes than boys with brothers.

"It's almost like boys and girls get treated as husband and wife," said Malhotra.

When these boys grow up, then, they're conditioned to expect women to be in charge of housework. Boys with brothers, on the other hand, are more likely to do so-called "feminized housework" while growing up and are therefore less likely to associate it with "women's work."

Of course, siblings aren't destiny, and there are plenty of other factors that affect how people develop their expectations for gender roles. I clearly lucked out, though: My husband grew up with a brother and is very good at doing the dishes.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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