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Joan Williams

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Chore Wars and the Value of Work

Posted: 08/02/11 05:55 PM ET

This week's Time cover story, "Chore Wars," is a wake-up call for those who think men and women are approaching parity, at home and in the workplace. After the huge steps made towards equality in the latter half of the 20th century, progress is stalling out.

Of course, that's not how the magazine presents the data. Their spin is that women and men actually do more equal amounts of work than ever -- an average of 51.7 hours a week for men (40.6 paid, 11.1 unpaid) and an average of 49.9 for women (22.2 paid, 27.7 unpaid). So women who complain about being overwhelmed need to stop being so whiny. (Maybe they're on their periods?)

But a tally of hours worked has never been the point of the women's movement. Women in the 1960s weren't protesting because their unpaid work was just so hard, and they wanted easy office jobs like lazy men. They were protesting the idea that they had no choice but to do that unpaid work while men were able to pursue the paid jobs that were both culturally and economically rewarded in ways unpaid work was not.

Time's analysis of the data blithely ignores the different value given to work at home and in the office. In the abstract, this is actually encouraging -- in an ideal world, both forms of work would be both equally compensated and equally valued. But we don't live in an ideal world. Cooking, cleaning and childrearing are still chores (as the article's title signals, perhaps inadvertently). Paid work still happens outside the home, and it's still the man's domain.

The article relegates an acknowledgement of the gaping inequality in types of work to a parenthetical at the end of a paragraph about how men's and women's workloads have never been so similar. ("Husbands and wives who split everything down the line are as hard to find as the great white whale.") What's more, according to the very statistics in the article, the changes in the balance of work since 1985 are barely outside of the statistical margin of error. Married fathers do an average of .2 hours per week more housework in 2010 than they did 25 years ago -- a grand total of 1 minute, 42 seconds more a day -- and married mothers actually do 2.7 hours more childcare than they did in 1985. All of which makes the conclusion that ladies just need to stop whining a little mystifying.

In fact, the statistics paint a pretty bleak picture overall. While the article vaunts the fact that men spend nearly 3.5 hours a week more on childcare now than they did in 1985, it glosses over the fact that women's childcare load has also increased - -and says nothing about the minuscule increases in men's contribution to housework and food preparation/cleanup. While the average of paid work women performed increased more than threefold between 1965 and 1985 (up from 6 hours weekly to 19.7 hours) it has increased an average of only 2.5 hours in the subsequent two and a half decades. At that rate, ignoring the logarithmic nature of the data, it would take 180 years from today for women to average as many hours of paid work as men.

This is not progress. This is not equality. This is a sign that we can't get complacent, because there's still lots of work to be done.

It's not that the article is entirely wrong. Men are indeed victims of social pressures to put work over family, just like women are victims of social pressures to put family over work. The balance of labor reflects this divide. But it's offensive to all parties to suggest that the fault lies with women for pressuring men to take on more housework and childcare duties. It's an argument one could imagine Don Draper making, but it most certainly doesn't belong in a national magazine.

Joan Williams is the author of Reshaping the Work-Family Debate and contributor to the New Deal 2.0 blog.

 

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