Chore Wars

Men are now pulling their weight — at work and at home. So why do women still think they're slacking off?

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Photo-Illustrations by Peter Rad for TIME

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A Tale of Two Sociologists

The assumption that working women had become the Clydesdales of contemporary marriage can be traced back to the publication of Arlie Russell Hochschild's The Second Shift in 1989. In the 1970s, Hochschild was a sociologist with two young children who was trying to get tenure at Berkeley, where she saw her male colleagues unencumbered by demands at home and was inspired to write about the working woman's double day. "It came from my own anguish, my own conflict," she says. Over the course of 10 years, Hochschild interviewed 50 couples, spending weeks at a time observing their tensions and resentments, their concessions and compromises. Part of The Second Shift's power, aside from Hochschild's considerable talents as a writer, was the depth of its qualitative research. But the book, which has enjoyed a long shelf life and is still read on college campuses, made an indelible mark with its famous finding that women worked roughly 15 more hours each week than men.

Hochschild came up with that number by averaging data collected in the 1960s, spotlighting what is now clearly the product of a culture in transition, a lag between women's entry into the workforce and the great domestic shakeout in which working women cut back on housework, often by outsourcing, and men reduced office hours and chipped in more at home. Yet Hochschild's interpretation of that statistical blip in the 1960s came to define the plight of women in the 1990s and 2000s. The Second Shift was a crossover hit and sparked a huge surge of academic writing on the inequalities of the household, or "domestic-labor literature," much of it devoted to trying to figure out why men were not picking up more slack.

One American sociologist, Suzanne Bianchi, stood on the sidelines of the why-men-aren't-doing-more debate for many years. From 1978 to 1994, she was a demographer and statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau working with large representative samples that shed light on long-term changes at the population level. Bianchi was looking at almost everything but housework — education, earnings, changes in employment — so she became aware of the pitfalls of focusing only on the domestic sphere. "Maybe men really were all jerks and not doing their fair share, or maybe they were allocating their time to other things. By isolating housework from other kinds of work, you lost track of the fact that families need money as well as time, and men were doing a lot of that," she says. "I began to get interested in what we really know. We think men don't do anything, but is that right? Are we systematically missing what they do do?"

When Bianchi left the Census Bureau to teach at the University of Maryland, she teamed up with John P. Robinson, director of the Americans' Use of Time Project, which collects data (and discourages exaggeration) by having participants account for all 24 hours of their day in a time diary. Bianchi and her colleagues analyzed time-diary data from 2003 to '05 and found that among couples in which both partners work full time, men's greater hours of paid work counterbalanced women's greater hours of unpaid work. A second shift, where it still existed, was most evident in dual-earner couples with children under the age of 6, but it was a difference of five hours more of combined paid and unpaid work for women a week, not 15. "That didn't mean that The Second Shift was completely wrong, just that it was misleading," says Bianchi, who published her analysis in 2009. "Another thing that got missed was that women shed housework when they're employed full time, but they hold on to a lot of child care, and that's a big piece of why The Second Shift resonates so much."

In the past several decades, mothers have actually increased the amount of time spent with their kids, a feat all the more remarkable considering that paid work has meant they're spending more and more hours outside the home. In addition, how they spend that time with their kids has gotten more labor-intensive as parenting styles have shifted toward what Annette Lareau of the University of Pennsylvania calls "the concerted cultivation of children," an attempt to draw out children's talents with organized activities and groom them for success, which requires a lot of waiting around while they do Taekwondo. This phenomenon — largely an upper-middle-class one — is known as intensive parenting, although given the gender breakdown still in play, it would probably be more accurate to call it intensive mothering and involved fathering.

Men are doing a lot of child care too — an average of 53 min. a day in 2010 for children under 18, which is almost three times as much as they did in 1965. Working women are doing an average of 1 hr. 10 min. a day, which is only 17 more min., but the compulsory aspect of it may contribute to the feeling of being more time-poor. Picking your child up from day care, for example, or getting a nutritious dinner onto the table cannot be put off until the morning.

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