Here are some of the most contentious questions facing American couples today: Who cleans the toilet? Who does the dishes? Who handles the budget? Who stays home when the kid is sick?
The fights over these issues are sometimes called the “chore wars.” And since women started joining the workforce in droves decades ago, the battle has been heated -- and, for some women, demoralizing. Even though about 60 percent of married women work, they still report taking primary responsibility at home for things like cooking and child care. That remains true even as more men say they want more responsibility at home, and outspoken proponents like Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg argue for more egalitarian partnerships.
But what happens when gay couples divide the work, removing traditional gender roles from the equation? To figure that out, a new study from The Families and Work Institute examined the differences in the ways gay and straight couples divvy up household responsibilities. The nonprofit think tank used an online panel to interview 225 dual-income gay and straight couples this past spring and found some interesting differences:
1. Women don’t have to do everything.
The study found that in heterosexual couples, women tended to take the primary responsibility for the traditionally “female” tasks like child care, cleaning and cooking. Men, not surprisingly, did the traditionally male chores like outdoor work and household repairs.
Gay couples shared more (though not all) responsibilities equally, including the biggie: child care. Seventy-four percent of same-sex, dual-earner couples shared routine child-care tasks, versus 38 percent of the different-sex couples. Gay couples also shared responsibility more equally for staying home when a child was sick (62 percent versus 32 percent.) That's huge -- taking on primary responsibility for sick days can keep both women and men from advancing at work.
The findings show that it may not be necessary for one parent in a dual-earner couple to take on all of the child care duties. There’s a more equitable way forward!
2. Couples need to talk about the division of labor at home.
The study also looked at couples’ satisfaction with the way the household chores were divided.
They found something surprising: No matter how household chores were split, the key to happiness was whether or not everyone had a say in the matter. Those who had a conversation about household responsibilities upon moving in together reported higher satisfaction than those who had wanted to talk but did not.
“Biting your tongue hurts longer than you think,” Kenneth Matos, senior director of research at the Institute and author of the study, told The Huffington Post.
Staying silent is a particularly common experience for women who are in partnerships with men. Twenty percent of women in heterosexual relationships reported that they hadn’t talked about household responsibilities with their partners even though they had wanted to. By comparison, only 15 percent of women in same-sex couples remained silent on the matter. Just 11 percent of men in both kinds of relationships stayed mum.
The takeaway here isn’t just that women should speak up, Matos said. Both men and women in straight couples should make sure they get these issues aired. “Too often we say it’s the responsibility of the quiet person to speak up,” he said.
Both partners need to take responsibility to make sure there’s a conversation. Only a frank discussion is going to change things -- inspiring couples to get more creative when it comes to dividing chores.