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Share housework for a blissful marriage

father and child sorting laundry at home
Credit:iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

Steady yourself for a shock, but official statistics show that Australian men are not holding up their end when it comes to cooking a meal, pushing a mower, changing nappies or scrubbing the bathtub.

According to Census results, while a typical Australian woman spends between five and 14 hours a week doing unpaid domestic housework, in the week prior to the census one in four men said they had done none1.

Nothing. Not cooked a meal, washed a plate, or changed a lightbulb.

What is concerning researchers like University of Melbourne Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Dr Leah Ruppanner, is what impact this trend is having on relationships.

In 2016, over half of employed men did no or less than five hours per week of unpaid domestic work (60%) compared with a third of employed women (36%). Men were also less likely than women to do 15 hours or more per week of unpaid domestic work (8% of men and 27% of women). This pattern applied across all hours of paid work, even for those working more than 49 hours per week. 

When it comes to unpaid caring and domestic work, Australian women are carrying a disproportionate load. While women are entering the paid workforce in larger numbers than ever before, this has not been matched by a boost in men participating in unpaid work at home.

And it looks like men in other countries are no better. In a 2017 study2  based on data from the nationally representative 2011 Canadian Work, Stress, and Health Survey Dr Ruppanner and her colleagues found inequality across housework and parenting jeopardises relationship quality.

The study which investigated the relationship between parenting inequalities and feelings of relationship quality, found working mothers assumed a larger parenting share, and this inequality had a negative impact on relationship quality – but only under certain conditions.

It deteriorated when mothers perceived their parenting division as unfair, or when they felt trapped in their primary carer role. 
 

"When it comes to unpaid caring and domestic work, Australian women are carrying a disproportionate load. While women are entering the paid workforce in larger numbers than ever before, this has not been matched by a boost in men participating in unpaid work at home."
2016 Australian Census

Specifically, mothers who performed a larger parenting share and worked part-time had the lowest relationship quality. This pattern was also evident for mothers who preferred more time at work. 

The research has serious implications for Australian families given the country’s high level of part time workforce participation by women.

Dr Ruppanner says the study was important because people were examining trends in women’s employment, economic consequences and its impact on the labour market, but what wasn’t fully understood was how this kind of inequality can damage relationships and have long standing consequences including family breakdown and divorce. 

“Managing divorce is a major life stress event and restructuring families is significant. Figuring out what the antecedents to it are so that we can help avoid it is important,” Dr Ruppanner says.

“Perhaps if men equally share the housework, couples might be more satisfied and less likely to divorce. If we really do share equally that might be a more beautiful thing.”

An Australian study3 on evolving marital and parenthood status and its impact on housework hours found the arrival of children did not change this element of life for men, but women experienced considerable change in their transition to parenthood. 

The results suggest that parenthood is a critical moment in the development of an unequal gap in time spent on routine household labour.

“Once they partner, women start to assume a larger share of the household duties. Once they have a baby this is when everyone becomes crazy and the gap widens. Kids bring a tremendous amount of housework and the bulk is assumed by women,” Dr Ruppanner says.

“There’s also research that suggests parents become more traditional and align with their gender expectations after children are born. That is that a woman needs to take care of their kid and the man needs to work after the child is born. 

“You have to ask when they are doing more housework are they angry about it? But they are saying to themselves, ‘that’s the woman’s job’. Our norms that women are the carers come in after birth, but it doesn’t create happier healthier marriages necessarily. 

“They seem to be saying, ‘I think this is my role, but I’m not saying this is great’. That seeps into the relationship and they become more resentful of him. At least this is what the data suggests.”

“Once they partner, women start to assume a larger share of the household duties. Once they have a baby this is when everyone becomes crazy and the gap widens. Kids bring a tremendous amount of housework and the bulk is assumed by women.”
Dr Leah Ruppanner

Dr Ruppanner says her study, with Professor Scott Schieman, Chair of the Department of Sociology, University of Toronto, and Melissa Milkie, Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto, had two main findings. The first is that women who view their share as unfair report the worst relationship quality. 

“It’s coming through the women and not the men. Men may say it’s unfair, but it has not impacted on the men’s perception of the relationship quality,” she says.

The second main finding is around part time employment. If women are working part time, or if they would prefer to be working more hours, and the child care division is unfair, they report worse relationship quality.

“What we thought we might find was that it was about woman working full time who are doing this unequal child care burden. We thought ‘they will be so exhausted’. Time poor women who are running, running, running. But that wasn’t what we found,” Dr Ruppanner says.

“What we found was that it was mainly about women who are trapped in the role of being a part time working mother. Trapped in the gender role expectation that once you have a kid you reduce your work to part time and you take on a larger share of the child care. 

“That example is very Australian. You guys work full time, you have a baby and then you drop your work hours to part time. 

“It’s known as role captivity. You are captive in your roles. You have to play this role, but you don’t want to play it.”

Dr Ruppanner says it is this group of women that report worse relationship quality rather than those working full time and suggests that the norm of a good mother working part time and taking on the child care and housework can be bad for the marriage.

“This norm clearly has consequences for relationship quality,” she says. 

“If you take that to the Australian sample where this is the norm, what are the implications for Australian families? Probably pretty great. 

“You reduce your work time when you have the first baby and then you have two or three and have these really long stretches out of the labour market. So then it becomes even harder to come back in after five or 10 years and women try to come up with creative solutions to try to maintain their careers, but try to meet these expectations that women should be working less than full time. 

“The result is a huge number of smart, highly educated women taking long gaps and probably not coming back into work. It’s not foolish to take that leap that there could be some resentment held.”

Dr Ruppanner says this shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that they don’t love their children or want to spend time with them. 

“It’s not about their love for their children, but that they might have some resentment with their motherhood role experientially when they are trying to piece together different types of employment. There is no way that’s not exhausting. 

“Keeping up one or more part time jobs is a very different experience and your kids are perhaps more bonded but there are consequences for the mother. 

“The husbands have to make trades too, but a different trade. Men certainly don’t have it easy either. 

“Men are under extreme pressure because they become the bread winner. The men are under time pressure. 

“It’s not men versus women. It’s probably a situation that’s not working for anybody so why are we doing this?”


1 Source: ABS, 2016 Census of Population and Housing. 
2 Schieman, S., Ruppanner, L. & Milkie, M.A. J Fam Econ Iss (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10834-017-9545-4
3 Baxter, J. , Hewitt, B. and Haynes, M. (2008), Life Course Transitions and Housework: Marriage, Parenthood, and Time on Housework. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70: 259-272. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2008.00479.x http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2008.00479.x/full

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