Domestic Inequality Starts in Childhood
Girls do more work around the house than boys. They learn it from their parents.
Because I have a daughter and a son, and because I’m fascinated by the ways boys and girls get socialized, I’ve noticed — with sadness and frustration — that my daughter takes on a lot more household labor than my son does. All things being equal, I’d expect the trend to go in the opposite direction, because she is three years younger. Yet she’s typically the one offering to help cook, clean the house and fold clothes. I make sure to solicit my son’s help, too, but her eagerness means she spends more time doing household tasks.
Some of this could, of course, be due to differences in personality or temperament. But I’ve wondered if the discrepancy might also reflect early social conditioning. So over the past few weeks I’ve dug into the research and, lo and behold, have discovered that my kids’ gendered propensities are not uncommon — and that boys and girls learn a lot about domestic expectations from observing their parents.
One study in particular made my heart hurt. It was published in 2008 but the findings still feel relevant today. In it, researchers in Canada analyzed data from a large study that tracked how more than 2,000 adolescents in grades 7 through 12 spent their time and how busy they felt. They found that girls spent more time on household tasks than boys did on school days, and that on Sundays, that difference skyrocketed — girls spent, on average, nearly 40 minutes longer on household tasks on Sundays than boys.
The researchers also found that girls had less free time than boys, especially on Sundays, and that girls felt more time pressure — meaning that they often felt they had more things to do than what they had time for and wished for more hours in a day.
As the researchers wrote:
Like their adult counterparts, female adolescents have greater responsibilities than males for household labor…..It may be that the gender schema for males includes a sense of entitlement to leisure, whereas for girls there is a notion that leisure is residual, or something that happens after other obligations have been met.
Doesn’t that sound familiar.
Where do girls and boys learn these gendered expectations? Of course, the answer is “everywhere” — gender stereotypes are practically pumped into the air our kids breathe. (In my book, I discuss the fact that gender socialization starts well before children are even born.)
Still, I didn’t fully recognize the extent to which kids learn these habits from watching us. Not only that, but science suggests that the less egalitarian kids’ households are, the fewer career aspirations girls have. What they observe at home, in other words, could have serious long-term ramifications.
In a 2014 study, researchers at the University of British Columbia surveyed 326 children between the ages of 7 and 13 and at least one of their parents. They asked the kids and parents questions to assess their gender-role beliefs, interviewed the kids about their aspirations, and asked the parents how much paid work they did outside the home and how much unpaid domestic work they did.
They found that girls were more likely to envision themselves as working outside the home when their fathers held more gender-egalitarian beliefs about domestic labor and when their mothers reported doing relatively less domestic work. They also found that the parents’ division in the labor predicted girls’ occupational aspirations.
Importantly, too, the researchers found that what the dads actually did — or didn’t do — around the house mattered more than what they said to their kids. Daughters of dads who talked a good talk about gender equality — but who nevertheless didn’t do as much as their partners in terms of domestic labor — had lower career aspirations than daughters of dads who pulled their weight around the house. As the researchers put it, “even when parents explicitly endorse gender equality at home, a traditional division of labor in daily life and implicitly held stereotypical attitudes can send a less egalitarian message to young girls.”
(Interestingly, they found that boys’ aspirations and beliefs about gender roles were not predicted by parents’ beliefs or behaviors, perhaps because, the researchers surmised, girls are more attuned than boys to social information and are more likely to internalize cues about social norms.)
Research involving younger kids has uncovered similar trends. One study found that 4-year-olds whose moms did the brunt of the childcare knew more about gender stereotypes than other 4-year-olds, and that kids from these less egalitarian families also engaged in more gender-stereotyped play. In another study involving kids between the ages of three and six, developmental psychologist Bonnie E. Carlson found that the more housework kids’ mothers did (and presumably the less their dads did), the more stereotypical the kids’ views were about the role of dads (or lack thereof) in domestic and family life.
And in yet another study, second graders from less egalitarian families were more likely to see it as unacceptable for a mother to want a full-time job or for a father to want to stay at home and take care of a new baby.
Here’s the thing about research like this: I think it’s important to share, reflect upon and discuss, but I also recognize that it can become one more reason for parents to feel guilty. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing; if this guilt incites some dads to take on more household labor for the sake of their kids (though why aren’t they doing it already for the sake of their partners?!), I’m all for it. Guilt can be motivating.
But for partners (mainly mothers) who shoulder the majority of the domestic labor at home, who feel that this imbalance is largely out of their control — they may also feel guilt after reading this post, even though their situation is not their fault.
If this is you, please — try to let go of that guilt. If you feel your partner is not going to change how much they do around the house, then that’s that. There are other things you can do to temper the effects of your household situation on your kids. An easy one: Have regular conversations with your kids about gender stereotypes. We know from the science that kids notice these stereotypes from an early age and internalize them, but we can absolutely push against the tide by discussing why they exist and correcting their budding misconceptions. If you’re not sure how to do this, check out chapter 5 of my book.
If this newsletter inspires you to talk to your partner about doing more around the house (you can start by forwarding them this email), that’s certainly not a bad thing, either. Not that it should be the over-worked partner’s responsibility to fix the problem, by any means — but I, personally, have found it helpful to lean into the idea of choosing guilt over resentment, a concept I outlined in a recent newsletter. I also recommend checking out Eve Rodsky’s work and her book Fair Play.
If you’re a dad who’s already taking on equal share at home, that’s wonderful. What I would ask of you is to find ways to encourage other men do the same, because there aren’t enough of you. Talk about what you do at home and why. Challenge the gender stereotypes you see and hear. Instead of being defensive, be an activist and an ally. So many women — and children — will be better off for it.