A new study suggests that the unequal division of household and childcare tasks within partnerships may reflect men’s and women’s actual preferences. For example, the study found that women enjoyed childcare tasks more than men did and also reported a greater desire for responsibility for these tasks compared to men. The findings were published in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences.
While it is becoming increasingly accepted for mothers to work outside the home, the division of family roles among men and women still leans toward women taking on more of the childcare tasks. While most scholars presume that this gender disparity reflects deeply-rooted beliefs about gender, study authors April Bleske-Rechek and Michaela M. Gunseor propose that it may have more to do with male and female preferences for household responsibilities.
Bleske-Rechek and Gunseor say that one theory is that gender differences in preferred family roles were selected through evolution. According to evolutionary theory, as child-bearers, women reinforced their reproductive success by investing in the health of offspring. Men, on the other hand, competed with other males over access to a limited number of reproductively valuable females. Men, therefore, benefited from traits that facilitated competition and physical strength, while females benefited from traits that promoted childrearing.
The researchers say these gender differences in traits and values might impact how men and women prioritize certain household tasks. Remarkably, few studies have considered men’s and women’s attitudes toward household tasks.
Bleske-Rechek and Gunseor sought to fill this gap, by systematically asking two samples of men and women about their preferences for housework and family care. The first sample was a group of 323 young adults between the ages of 18 and 23. The second sample involved 113 middle-aged adults between the ages of 31 and 46, the majority of whom were married or cohabitating with a partner (93%) and had at least one child (85%). Middle-age participants were asked to rate their enjoyment of a series of 40 childcare tasks and 58 household tasks, and young adults were asked to imagine how much they would enjoy these same tasks.
When totaling the ratings across the 40 childcare tasks, women’s overall enjoyment of these tasks was greater than men’s. Young women’s ratings of enjoyment were higher than men’s for 5 out of 10 childcare tasks. Middle-age women’s ratings of enjoyment were greater than men’s for 7 out of 10 childcare tasks. As the researchers emphasize, not one childcare task was rated more enjoyable by men than women.
The researchers next examined whether the participants’ enjoyment of a task was related to their desired responsibility for the same task. “If men and women feel strongly about sharing all childcare tasks equally, then how much they enjoy a task should not be associated with how much responsibility they want for a task,” the researchers discuss. However, this association is exactly what the researchers found. “Within each sample as a whole and within each group of men and women, individuals tended to want more responsibility for childcare tasks they liked and less responsibility for those they did not like.”
Gender differences were again revealed when it came to household tasks. Among both samples, men enjoyed tasks to do with outdoor labor and home maintenance more than women did. Women preferred cleaning, food prep, family scheduling, and home decorating. Moreover, this pattern mirrored the way the participants wanted these tasks to be divided — women tended to prefer men to take care of home maintenance tasks and men preferred women to take care of home decorating tasks.
The participants were also asked to indicate along a scale whether they would prefer to be the breadwinner within a partnership, the homemaker, or to share these roles equally. Across both samples, although 56% of men and 56% of women chose the egalitarian option, 36% of women chose a response closer toward homemaker and 35% of men chose a response closer toward breadwinner.
The researchers say that while the gender disparity in family roles is typically viewed as a burden on women, their study suggests that the situation is more nuanced than that. Unequal role sharing might not signal unfair treatment or cause resentment among couples. The authors suggest that future research should explore whether task preferences among couples match up to the way tasks are actually divided within partnerships, and how these two factors relate to relationship satisfaction.
The study, “Gendered Perspectives on Sharing the Load: Men’s and Women’s Attitudes Toward Family Roles and Household and Childcare Tasks”, was authored by April Bleske-Rechek and Michaela M. Gunseor.