The Gender Researcher’s Guide to an Equal Marriage

In their personal lives, sociologists attempt to ward off the same inequalities that they study at work.

A photo illustration of a man and a woman doing household chores
Popperfoto / Getty; H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock / Getty; The Atlantic

Over the years, as I’ve interviewed many sociologists about gender divisions in how couples handle chores and child care, I’ve often wondered what happened after we got off the phone. When these researchers returned to their life, how were they splitting up the tasks in their own home? Because gender scholars—they’re just like us: They too have floors to sweep, kids to feed, toilets to clean.

But, I learned, they are also decidedly not like us. In different-sex couples who have young children and both work a full-time job, mothers are estimated to do an average of roughly five more hours a week of paid and unpaid labor than fathers. Yet most of the sociologists I recently spoke with reported an equitable division of labor at home. These researchers’ deep understanding of family life has helped them come up with tactics for warding off the same inequalities that they study—though they still sometimes struggle to keep gender norms and stereotypes from undermining them.

Sociologists are attuned to the constraints society places on people’s everyday decisions, and those I interviewed stressed to me that their education, income, job stability, job flexibility, and access to child care made it easier for them to realize their egalitarian goals. I also interviewed only different-sex couples; same-sex couples navigate different cultural pressures when managing a home, and tend to split up chores more equally.

Still, we can learn from what these experts have done in their own home. Three of their strategies in particular stuck out to me. The first is fighting against the mistaken belief that moms are better suited to parenting than dads, which can lead women to spend more time, and men to spend less time, on child care. William Scarborough, a sociologist at the University of North Texas, told me that he has made a point of sticking with even the tasks that initially come more easily to his wife. For instance, his son, as a toddler, used to behave better at bath time with her. “But instead of relying on her to do it, I continued bathing him, even if it took twice as long,” he said. “Eventually, I got the hang of it and was able to bathe him without any drama.”

The second strategy is simple: Thank your partner for the work they do around the house. Multiple experts told me this was helpful, and research indicates that people feel less bitterness about housework when their contributions are recognized. “Acknowledging that there’s work going on—that the stuff at home is work—and thanking your partner for doing that, I think, goes a long way,” Richard Petts, a sociologist at Ball State University, told me.

A third tactic is to do some chores in tandem. Daniela Negraia, a sociologist at the University of Oxford, told me that she started doing this with her husband out of an awareness that women, on average, do more housework than men. “Our solution was to pick a day, one weekend day for example, and just think of what chores we have, and then work starts at the same time and ends at the same time,” Negraia told me. Scarborough, who also favors doing chores together, said that this “prevents them from becoming alienating.”

The experts’ knowledge of the research helps them actively resist common patterns. The scholars I interviewed talked about trying not to replicate in their own home the findings that fathers spend more time with boys than with girls, that mothers are more likely to involve their daughters in housework than their sons, and that mothers tend to have less leisure time than fathers. Research also drew their attention to how dividing housework and child care fairly isn’t just good in and of itself, but can make their family happier. They were motivated, for instance, by studies indicating that kids benefit from stronger bonds with their dad and that women are more satisfied with their relationship when they feel the distribution of tasks is fair.

But this awareness alone isn’t enough to overcome the larger cultural forces that shape housework and parenting. The women I interviewed tended to disproportionately handle the managerial elements of running a home, as well as their household’s “mental load”—the invisible logistical and emotional work of, among other things, keeping track of when kids need new clothes, planning family outings, and remembering to send birthday cards to loved ones.

Negraia, who bears more of the mental load than her husband, has come up with a creative way to make him aware of the otherwise hidden work she does: When she, say, calls their kids’ doctor or plans out weekend activities, she’ll send her husband a calendar invitation for each task as a way of underlining how much time it eats up without starting a tense conversation. Her husband told me that when he sees those invitations pop up on his calendar, he’ll think, “Maybe I should do a few extra loads of dishes and laundry that day.”

Because these couples’ conversations about housework were grounded in research, they became less personal and fraught—the couples tended to adopt a framework of “us versus society” rather than “me versus you.” “I think that the emotional heat that can so often come with these conversations is really diminished for [my partner] and me because this is so clearly not just about him and me,” Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis, told me. “It kind of removes the ego from the conversation.”

That perspective also emphasizes the pervasiveness of gender norms—something no one couple can overcome on their own. Collins told me that when she interviewed working mothers in Sweden, she was struck by how, in what is considered one of the world’s most gender-egalitarian countries, women still had to have frequent and ongoing conversations with their male partner about housework. In her own home, she has come to think of equality not as “a static goal that we will arrive at and [declare] victory” but rather as “a lifelong project that we’re working on together.”

Even those who have dedicated their career to studying gender inequality can only do so much. Whatever they may achieve in their own homes, cultural norms are beyond their control. Petts and his wife notice when another parent texts her and not him to set up a playdate for their kids, and when teachers email her and not him about something at school. “Even if I’m more in charge of school, which I am now, I’m not necessarily privy to all of the information,” he said. “These hidden biases that people have about the roles of mother and father make it challenging to divide these tasks evenly.”

Even though Petts and his wife agree that they share the work of parenting and chores equitably, the world doesn’t always judge them accordingly. Like many involved fathers, he gets applauded for his contributions. “One thing that is hardest for me is that Richard is viewed by others as an awesome dad (and he is) and a wonderful husband (and he is), but I’m viewed as mediocre at best,” Petts’s wife wrote to me in an email, because “the assumption is that when a man does all these things, … the woman has somehow done less than she should. I don’t know how many times people have told me that I am probably the luckiest person around because Richard cooks dinner.”

As the researchers I interviewed understand, one couple can’t change the world. But perhaps by being aware of its shortcomings, you can make some changes in your own home.