Female breadwinners sweep the crumbs, too

Valerie Frey and Lucy Hulett, OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

It’s 11:00 on Saturday morning. Both you and your partner had exhausting weeks at work, and so far the day has been spent preparing and cleaning up breakfast, wrangling children out of pyjamas and into real clothes, and running to the store for yogurt and bananas. Your kids are finally playing quietly with Lego bricks in the living room. At last, a break!

Do you:

(a) Relax on the couch with an iPad?
(b) Go tidy up the bedrooms?
(c) Gather laundry to toss a quick load in the washing machine?
(d) Start meal prep for the week ahead?

If you answered b, c, or d, odds are good that you’re a woman. But don’t just take the word of two working parents. Survey data tell us so.

In every OECD country, and indeed throughout the world, women do more unpaid housework and childcare than men. Norwegians nearly equally share unpaid work, but women there still do thirty additional minutes of childcare and chores than men every day. In countries like Japan, Korea, Mexico, and Turkey, women do more than three times as much unpaid work as their partners. Recent OECD research finds that Mexican women spend especially long hours on childcare and chores, spending over six hours each day, on average, while men spend fewer than two. Inequality in unpaid care work is even worse in developing countries.

Women do most of the unpaid childcare and housework in the OECD
Proportion and total minutes of unpaid labour per day carried out by men and women, select OECD countries

Source: Chapter 1 in Building an Inclusive Mexico: Policies and Good Governance for Gender Equality (OECD, 2017)

This unpaid work burden takes its toll. Women are less likely to engage in the labour force when they put in long hours cooking, cleaning, and caring for kids. When women do work, they’re more likely to work part-time and earn less than their male counterparts. This reflects some women’s preferences to stay home after becoming parents, but it also reflects deep-seated gender norms, stereotypes, and sometimes discrimination on the part of employers, who may anticipate that women are less committed to their jobs.

Less time on housework means more time for paid work

Source: Chapter 4 in Building an Inclusive Mexico: Policies and Good Governance for Gender Equality (OECD, 2017).

Young couples may start out sharing laundry duties, but gender gaps in unpaid work widen when men and women become parents. Childbirth represents an important milestone, as it is the time when many couples revert to more “traditional” roles: mothers are more likely to opt out of the workforce or reduce their hours to care for kids, while fathers are more likely to be employed, across OECD countries, than men without children. The gender gap in the employment rate between men and childless women is a relatively small 4.8 percentage points, on average, across the OECD. This gap more than quadruples, to nearly 23 percentage points, when comparing men to women with at least one child under age 14.

An old-fashioned economist might claim, “Ah, but this is a natural and efficient division of labour – women and men specialise in household and market tasks!” This argument may have made sense fifty years ago, when many men’s education and earning potential outpaced women’s, but that is no longer the case. In most OECD countries, young women now have higher levels of education than men. And while the gender wage gap is relatively small in young adulthood, it widens around childbearing age as the so-called “motherhood penalty” takes effect.

Even when women earn more than their spouses, they still do the majority of unpaid housework and care. Theorists point to this as evidence that gender norms outweigh economic efficiency as high-earning women do more housework to conform to gender norms at home, if not in the labour market.

Unpaid work is unbalanced even in couples where the woman earns a higher income
Minutes spent in unpaid work, per day, according to women’s income relative to their partner’s income

Source: Chapter 5 in Dare to Share: Germany’s Experience Promoting Equal Partnerships in Families (OECD, 2017).

But there is hope. Policymakers, employers, and families are starting to take action.

Governments increasingly recognise the importance of couples equally sharing childcare and chores. About two-thirds of OECD countries now offer paid paternity leave around childbirth. A growing number of countries reserve (or award “bonus”) days for fathers within parental leave schemes. As a new OECD report details, Germany went even further by introducing the Parental Allowance Plus (ElterngeldPlus) and Partnership Bonus (Partnerschaftsbonus), which provide financial incentives for both parents working part-time and sharing caregiving when children are young. Other countries, including Australia, Portugal, and Slovenia, have run awareness campaigns to promote men’s work-life balance and equal sharing at home.

Workplace policies matter, too. Many employers now offer flexible work options and care-related leave, but workplace cultures often stigmatise fathers who take up such benefits. These measures must be accompanied by employers’ normalisation of men’s leave-taking and by better efforts to evaluate employees based on actual output, rather than “face time” on the job. Hours are a poor proxy for performance and typically disadvantage women.

Of course, policies can only go so far in promoting equality at home if gender stereotypes persist in society. Although fathers’ leave-taking and working part-time are steps in the right direction, they will likely produce only slow changes in unpaid work behaviour.

So how do we keep our daughters from making the dough and sweeping the breadcrumbs?

Perhaps the most important step is to teach your sons to clean and teach your daughters not to. Early gender socialisation, at school and at home, has long-lasting effects. A strong predictor of an adult’s behaviours and expectations is their parents. Across countries, adult children tend to mimic their mothers’ and fathers’ division of paid and unpaid labour.  Children with working mothers expect women to work outside the home, and children with dads who do housework expect that, too. By “dropping the ball” and encouraging their partners to pick up the slack, mothers can relax on the couch safe in the knowledge that they are doing their bit to encourage gender equality in future generations.

Useful Links

OECD Gender Data Portal

Dare to Share: Germany’s Experience Promoting Equal Partnership in Families (OECD, 2017)

Building an Inclusive Mexico: Policies and Good Governance for Gender Equality (OECD, 2017)

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