Research Findings

Can the differences in economic resources explain the gender gap in housework?

October 27, 2022

In the last decade, housework research emphasized the importance of focusing on economic resources, particularly women’s own resources, to analyze housework participation and the amount of time people spend on housework. Meanwhile, most research papers in the period modeled women’s and men’s housework time separately, whereas the need to analyze the gender gap itself remained.

We know that there are differences in housework time between women and men. We also know that resources, particularly women’s own resources, are important in explaining their housework time. But how much do economic resources actually matter in the gender gap in housework? Does the effect of resources increase or decrease over time?

In the recent paper published in the Social Science Journal, we answer these questions and analyze the gender gap in housework time using the American Time Use Survey Data Extract Builder (ATUS-X) data for the period of 2003-2019. First, we examined how much economic resources such as spousal and own usual weekly paid work hours, spousal and own hourly wage, and women’s earnings share explain the gender gap in housework time. As Figure 1 shows, the combined effect of resources can explain up to about 40% of the gender gap in housework.

Economic resources explain more of the gender gap in housework time in shared housework tasks like shopping and those that are more associated with women, such as cooking and cleaning. However, they have little to no power in explaining the division of housework time in tasks that are culturally more associated with men, such as maintenance and repairs.

Two things become apparent from these broad findings alone. First, the inequalities in the labor market reflected in the economic resources do not perfectly align with the inequalities at home. In this case, if we had such a perfect alignment with existing theories, the explained portion of the gender gap would have been much higher, if not 100%. The gender gap in working hours (14.31 hours per week) is larger than that in housework time (67.75 minutes per day, or 7.9 hours per week). The same is true across racialized and ethnic groups and in other countries of the global north, but not in some countries of the global south because of higher unemployment rates in the general population. The question of why there is this misalignment of inequality at work and at home cannot be captured by economic explanations alone.

Second, economic factors cannot provide an explanation for the gender gap in maintenance and repair tasks. This puts into question the universal applicability of the resource-based frameworks to all types of housework, as they cannot be applied to male-typed tasks.

The findings show that the economic explanations are better suited to explain female-typed and shared housework like shopping than male-typed tasks. In maintenance and repairs, we cannot deny the effect of gender on men’s participation and time spent on these tasks. This finding calls for at least some theoretical concession to the gender display camp.

Additionally, we also analyzed whether the ability of resources to explain the gender gap changed over time. Figure 2 shows the explained proportion of the gender gap in total housework time in the period between 2003 and 2019. The results show that the explained part by economic factors increased over time, particularly in female-typed housework (detailed outputs can be found in the paper).

A couple of explanations can fit these findings. First, the results could mean that the alignment of inequality in the labor market with that at home has improved. Second, the gender discrimination in the labor market and at home decreased, which led to the increased share of explained gender gap by economic resources. Both explanations indicate that there was less reliance on gendered effects and more on market mechanisms, as was contended by Paula England and Oriel Sullivan.

Yet, the findings also illustrate that a substantial part of the gender gap in housework time remains unexplained. On top of economic resources, we must extend our theoretical explorations toward more structural and contextual factors shaping contemporary gender discrimination both in the labor market and at home. The fact that economic resources can explain some of the gender gap in housework time does not negate the existence of gender inequality. In fact, it only further demonstrates that the systems of gender oppression work simultaneously in paid and unpaid work.

One of the directions that future research could proceed toward is where market mechanisms might not as easily translate into the division of housework at home. For example, we could put our efforts into understanding the gender inequalities among retired heterosexual couples, where both partners are not gainfully employed. We already know that gender inequality in housework persists in older age, but it would be theoretically interesting to find exactly what, if not economic resources, explains the gendered division of housework in retirement.

Read more

Kamila Kolpashnikova and Man-Yee Kan. “Gender gap in housework time: how much do individual resources actually matter?”  in The Social Science Journal 2021.

Image: Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay

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