Understanding Gender Inequality On the Domestic Front

When we think about improving gender equality, we tend to think about passing legislation or improving the work environment.  However, improving the home environment is important as well, since gender inequality is often deeply rooted there.  Although a high percentage of married couples espouse marital equality, mothers have consistently done about 65% of the childcare and housework since 2000 (1). The Covid-19 pandemic, which led to millions of women quitting their jobs to care for their kids, has probably increased this disparity.

This overview of gender inequality in the home doesn’t examine race, class, religion, country, or same sex partnerships.  Instead, it focuses on the general patterns that contribute to married women and men in the U.S. having an unequal share of the domestic work. 

First, let’s review some facts: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2020, 65.8% of married women with children under six worked outside the home, as did 75.4% of married women with children between six and seventeen (2).  Moreover, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center study, 29% of married women earn more than their husbands (3).  So why haven’t parent’s workloads at home reflected women’s participation and growing earnings in the workforce?

Take Action:  Think about one way in which cultural expectations influence, or have influenced you, on the domestic front.  

  • Are you content with the way things are or the way things turned out?  
  • If not, what would you change and how?

Studies suggest a number of reasons why parent’s workloads at home are still unequal, some of which are summarized below:

  • Research suggests that parents are influenced by cultural expectations. Currently, it appears that most Americans believe women should be the primary caregiver of young children. In Pew Research Center interviews of adults (4), 33% said that ideally, mothers shouldn’t work at all after couples have kids, as compared to 4% who thought that men shouldn’t work.  In contrast, 7 in 10 adults thought that it’s ideal when fathers of young children work full time. 
  • A significant percentage of both mothers and fathers believe that it is women’s nature to be the primary caregiver, despite research evidence to the contrary (5). In addition, definitions of masculinity still place more emphasis on achievement outside the home than nurturance and unpaid work at home (6). 
  • Avoidance of Responsibility: A number of social scientists have found that fathers often resist assuming primary responsibility for childcare and housework.  In sociologist Scott Coltraine’s opinion, this is “because it is in men’s interest to do so” since it “reinforces a separation of sphere that underpins masculine ideals and perpetuates a gender order privileging men over women” (7).
  • Women’s Unentitlement: A number of studies find that from an early age, women are reinforced for deferring their own preferences and needs in order to please others. Social psychologists Carolyn and Philip Cowan (8) called this pattern “unentitlement”, and argued that it persists after marriage, with women often putting their husband’s needs and preferences ahead of their own.
  • Mental Load: Although men take on the tasks of organization, planning, and execution in their careers, research indicates that at home, they usually abdicate this responsibility to their wives (9). There’s a lot of discussion in the literature about why mothers end up taking on this mental load rather than “going on strike” or otherwise insisting that their husband do more.
  • Lack of Consistent Communication:  Researchers John Gottman and Alyson Shapiro suggest that a lack of open and clear communication between couples is part of the problem. The Gottman Institute’s “Bringing Baby Home” workshop offered prenatal family education that encouraged communication and give-and-take between prospective mothers and fathers (10).
  • A Matter of Preference:  It was difficult to find research on the percentage of women who prefer to both work outside the home and do most of the childcare and housework.  However, there are numerous articles and blogs written by working women who, usually for religious or cultural reasons, prefer to do the bulk of housework and childcare.