Friday, February 25, 2011

Keeping it clean: housework’s gender divide

The following piece appeared in the National Times on 21 February 2011.

As the television series Mad Men apparently spawns a new desire among women to wear aprons over gowns,  lippy smothered ear to ear, while vacuuming the floor – a new study suggests it is lesbian couples that have modernised the meaning of housework.

For the past two years, I have been involved in the Work, Love, Play study at La Trobe University. We have surveyed lesbian parents about their everyday family lives and how they organise their household tasks. Who does the dishes? Who takes out the garbage? Who puts the kids to bed?

We were essentially interested in whether same-sex couples organise their households differently to heterosexual couples, particularly once children are in the mix.

Our findings are that lesbian couples are more likely to report a fairly equal division of labour in their household, compared to their heterosexual counterparts. On the whole, lesbian mothers are less inclined to feel like they shoulder more of the housework or parenting responsibilities than their partner.

This is not to suggest lesbian couples are better on the home front than heterosexual couples. In fact, sexuality is, in many ways, a minor plot line in this story. Gender is the main topic of interest here.

The common thread was that women in lesbian relationships were doing what millions of heterosexual women do everyday – simultaneously managing the competing demands of work and family. Not only was there a more egalitarian sharing of household tasks, lesbian couples were much more likely than heterosexual couples to manage their work and family demands by both working part time.

Part-time work and motherhood go hand in hand. Once kids come along, part-time work enables women to maintain an income and, if they're lucky, a foot on the career ladder, while also caring for children.

The difference for lesbians is that there are two women in the household doing this.

Perhaps this poses a strong argument that a "wife" instead of a "husband" may make the dishes a less daunting task to tackle, but it doesn't lead to a simple conclusion like "all men are lazy". When it comes to housework, even men who describe themselves as pro-feminist and aspire to equity within their households don't always manage the laundry.

There are probably several reasons for this — some political, some just practical. The culture of workplaces can be unsupportive towards men seeking to work less so they can spend more time with their children. Often it is just more efficient for one person, rather than two, to manage the household and delineate tasks on a needs basis. But on top of this, I suspect traditional gender roles often have more hold over us than we realise.

I doubt lesbians are any less socialised as "women" than heterosexual women — the fact that lesbian couples tend to share household tasks equally suggests they are doing exactly what is expected of women. But for same-sex couples, falling back on gender expectations regarding housework is not really an option. There is little room for unspoken assumptions about who is better at what.

Unfortunately, there were not enough men involved in the study to draw conclusions on how gay fathers organise their households. This would perhaps have offered the most revealing look at gender. Presumably gay couples manage to keep their floors vacuumed, but it would be interesting to know more about how two men negotiate workplace demands in between caring for kids.

Many heterosexual couples reverse the traditional roles, so that the man cares for the kids while his wife works full time. There are probably more still where the couple shares these tasks equally. But, on the whole, research shows that gender is usually the key factor in determining who works, who stays home, who does the dishes and who mows the lawn.

The expectations society places on us as women or men — particularly living in a relationship with children — mean the freedom to negotiate who does what is loaded with assumptions.

Being in a relationship where gender assumptions are not an option means same-sex couples have opportunities to negotiate a different way of being. Housework is not a gender-based job description, it's just done.

Dr Jennifer Power is a research fellow at La Trobe University's Bouverie Centre, which focuses on family research and family therapy.

Previous posts on the topic of housework and household division of labour can be found here and here.


  1. No matter of the gender, every member of a family or relationship should participate in the housework.
    It is an essential part of normal life and has to be done regularly.

  2. It seems so simple doesn't it :)