As a child of a single mother, I witnessed her working as a waitress for almost 15 hours a day. The moment she stepped into our home, household responsibilities hit her. The dishes needed washing, my sister and I needed to be fed, and my piano and ballet lessons needed to be paid. Unfortunately, this problem is disproportionately faced by single mothers and women in relationships.
Although women have made much progress toward gender equality, they still carry an unequal household burden that ranges from cooking and cleaning to childcare and errands. Women spend four-and-a-half hours per day on household chores and family, compared to men's average of 2.8 hours (GMA, 2022). This uneven distribution not only perpetuates gender stereotypes but can also lead to burnout, stress, and strained relationships.
In this post, I will explore the evidence behind women's disproportionate burden of household labor and share my key learnings for achieving a more equitable division of work.
Background & Context for the Uneven Distribution of Household Labor between Women & Men
Women earn around $10.9 trillion annually if paid the minimum wage for all their work around the house and caring for their families (Wezerek & Ghodsee, 2020). Unfortunately, women are not paid for any of this. Unpaid labor is one of the driving forces of the gender gap, making it difficult for them to participate in the paid workforce and advance in their careers.
Misty Heggeness, University of Kansas professor of public affairs, explains this issue perfectly:
"It is the law of physics. No one has more than 24 hours in a day. If your work increases in one area, it will have to decrease in another."
In nations where women spend twice as much time as men caring for others, they are paid 65% of what men earn (OCED, 2014). When women devote five times as much time to unpaid care work, this figure falls to 40% (OECD, 2014). This statistic may be explained by the possibility that men work more paid hours. Research, however, debunks this: Men who work the same number of hours as women do 3.8 hours of housework each week, compared to 4.9 hours for women. That's a difference of 29%. (Weisholtz, 2020).
In this gendered division of labor, strategic incompetence has emerged as a way for some individuals to use poor performance to avoid specific household tasks, perpetuating the imbalance of work and creating tension in relationships. This could look like telling your partner they should unload the dishwasher because they know where everything is "better" than they do.
A viral tik tok video sparked the heated debate of weaponized incompetence. A wife wrote a detailed grocery list that included prices and pictures of each item with a store map and their precise locations. Her husband was so "incapable" of purchasing the correct products that she had to go out of her way to outline all the steps necessary to complete a seemingly simple task.
Mental health also suffers due to the stress of domestic work, as women's increased hours doing household work is linked to poor physical and psychological health (Ervin, 2022; Ahonon et al., 2020; Wang & Lu, 2022).
Recognize the importance of unpaid household labor
The first step in working toward an equitable division of labor is to acknowledge the economic value of unpaid household labor and the potential unconscious biases and gender norms associated with it. From keeping track of your child's dental appointments to packing their lunch, all are critical and require a mental load. This cognitive load includes all the invisible labor needed to manage a family.
Challenge Gender Norms
In many couples, domestic duties are often divided along traditional gender lines, with men taking on tasks like taking out the trash, while women tend to be responsible for cooking and cleaning (Pinkster, 2022).
As we strive to create more equitable and inclusive households, it's important to challenge traditional gender norms and break down stereotypes about who should be responsible for which household tasks. For example, I may take charge of tasks like trash disposal even though it is traditionally the man’s job.
However, it's also important to acknowledge that we all have our own personal preferences and comfort levels when it comes to domestic duties. Even if we enjoy certain tasks or roles, it's worth reflecting on why that might be, and whether our assumptions about gender are influencing our choices. Ultimately, the goal should be to create a household where everyone feels valued and empowered to contribute in their own unique way, regardless of gender stereotypes.
Practical Frameworks for Managing a Busy Household
With all these challenges with dividing unpaid labor equitably, I would like to share two frameworks that offer a practical approach to managing a busy household: 1) The Fair Play Method and 2) the 5 T's (Time, testimony, talent, treasure, and temperament).
Deploy the Fair Play Method
Eve Rosky is a leading expert in time management and organization and the author of "Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do and More Life to Live." Her framework has helped me create visibility in my household tasks, design a schedule, and create a safe space for communication.
Create visibility with your family: Map out high-priority household tasks & design a schedule
Mapping out all the critical household tasks will provide the complete picture of all functions required to run a household. After mapping this out, decide on what is required and optional. If you would like to go deeper, you can assign a difficulty level and a time estimate for completing the task.
Consider rotating critical tasks through the cycle of chores instead of assigning a person a specific set of duties. According to one study, couples who managed each assignment jointly were twice as likely to say their division of labor was fair compared to those assigned a specific set of responsibilities—although both groups split the overall workload roughly equally (Pinkster, 2022).
When my partner first moved in last year, we needed help to keep track of our household tasks. We decided to come up with a system to keep ourselves organized. We identified that the highest priority tasks were: taking out the trash and cleaning up the kitchen, living room, and bathroom. I designed a color-coded automated Excel sheet and assigned a color by task. This spreadsheet automatically rotated the duties every week. That way, we were equally responsible for every job and would avoid getting stuck doing the same tasks repeatedly. We also keep each other accountable by whiteboarding critical functions on the fridge whiteboard to make them visible. For each of these tasks, we defined a success metric for each. For example, removing the trash means throwing out the bathroom, kitchen, and recycling and replacing them with clean bags. By defining each task, we are on the same page and satisfied with what was accomplished. With this new system, we were a lot more efficient and organized. I also appreciate my partner more when he cleans the bathroom now since I know how much energy it takes when it is my turn.
Check in on what is working and not working, and show gratitude
My partner and I have always been committed to improving our relationship, so we started conducting weekly check-ins for the past two years. Every Sunday, we discuss the highlights of the week, and improvement areas and express gratitude, and ways to support each other. This support could be as simple as taking on a few extra chores or running errands for the other person or as complex as providing emotional support during a difficult time.
By having these conversations, we could identify and solve problems we may have overlooked and provide each other opportunities to offer affirmation. As a result, we became more aware of each other's needs and could meet them more effectively. We also became more comfortable talking about sensitive topics and could communicate more effectively. Our relationship has grown stronger because of these check-ins. We've found that it's essential to maintain a healthy and fulfilling partnership and work on the same team.
Implement the 5 T's framework for equitable division of household labor
When dividing household labor and outsourcing tasks, the 5 T's framework - Time, Testimony, Talent, Treasure, and Temperament - provides a helpful guide.
Here are some ways to apply this framework in your daily life:
Time & Treasure: Start by identifying how much time you and your partner have for household chores and responsibilities. Recognize that time is a finite resource and prioritize accordingly. Take note of tasks you dislike or take up much of your time. Consider outsourcing these tasks to free up more time for your family and personal pursuits if budget allows. For example, I have friends who have hired a cleaning service once a month. They have mentioned how that has saved their marriage. In a similar vein, when my partner and I are too busy to cook, we order takeout so that we can focus on quality time and alleviate stress.
Testimony: Honesty and fairness are crucial in ensuring an equitable distribution of household labor. Both partners should be transparent about their schedules, abilities, and limitations. Communicate openly about what you can and cannot do, and try to find solutions for both of you. We try our best to be thoughtful of our circumstances. Sometimes when I work over 60-hour weeks, my partner helps take on more household tasks, and I also cover for him in other weeks.
Talent & Temperament: Everyone has unique preferences, strengths, and personality traits that can be leveraged when dividing household labor. Consider each person's skills, interests, and experience when assigning tasks. For instance, my partner enjoys cooking while I take on meal preparation. By giving duties based on individual strengths, we complete them more efficiently and effectively.
When it comes to personality and disposition, take note of what each partner enjoys doing and what they find challenging. For example, my partner is more patient and takes on tasks requiring more patience, such as ironing. On the other hand, I prefer more fast-paced tasks requiring project management skills, so I develop the itinerary for our trips.
This is still an ongoing process, and adjustments may need to be made as circumstances change. We constantly remind ourselves to be flexible.
Call to Action
Ten years ago, my mother met my stepdad. She was once a single parent who had to shoulder all the household responsibilities independently. She was under a lot of pressure, and she often felt overwhelmed. But everything changed when my stepdad came into our lives and challenged the gender norms associated with housework.
He challenged gender norms and was always willing to help and contribute to household labor. He was a chef and enjoyed cooking, so he helped immensely. My mom noticed a massive difference in the way she felt. She no longer felt like she was carrying the weight of the household on her shoulders. Instead, she felt like she had a partner helping her and making her life easier.
However, the benefits of my stepdad's contribution to household labor went beyond just making my mom's life easier. It also improved their relationship. My stepdad and mom could communicate better and work together as a team. They could divide the household tasks in a way that worked for both of them, strengthening their relationship.
As professionals, it's time to challenge gendered social norms associated with unpaid household labor and prevent burnout from doing invisible housework at home, regardless of gender. Start by recognizing the economic value of unpaid household labor and the potential unconscious biases and gender norms associated with it.
To achieve a more equitable division of labor, consider using frameworks like the Fair Play Method and the 5 T's. If the frameworks feel overwhelming, take the first step towards change by reading books and articles and engaging in open and honest communication, negotiation, and compromise with your partner.
My personal experiences highlight the gendered division of labor between men and women. I also want to hear your stories and insights beyond the traditional heterosexual couple framework. Let's work together to create a future where unpaid labor is not undervalued, and everyone can pursue their personal and professional aspirations without being held back by gender stereotypes.
Sources referenced in my blog post: