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Father with toddler folding laundry.

American women have worked hard for gender equity, but their efforts — which have affected the boardroom, the playing field, politics, and so many other areas — have had less impact on stubborn, old-school ideas about household roles.

More women now serve in Congress than at any time in our history, for example, but women in straight couples still do most of the housework.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2018 American Time Use Survey reports that women in heterosexual relation­ships spend an average of 50 percent more time on domestic chores than their male partners do. This latest finding reinforces a longstanding trend researchers have seen since they began studying the topic in 2003.

Even when men claim to share household duties and childcare equally with their partners, the data — as revealed in a 2015 Pew Research Center survey — shows they often don’t.

Studies have also concluded that women handle the majority of routine tasks (such as cooking, meal cleanup and dishwashing, laundry, housecleaning, and grocery shopping), while men carry out more of the less-monotonous occasional chores, including household repairs and car maintenance.

A 2015 Ohio State University study found that this division of household labor tends to become more imbalanced after the birth of a child. Over the course of a year, that burden adds up, the authors note: “Parenthood increased women’s total workload by about four-and-a-half weeks of 24-hour days, whereas parenthood increased men’s total workload by approximately one-and-a-half weeks — a three-week-per-year gender gap.”

While the majority of research into this issue focuses on heterosexual couples, some studies suggest that same-sex couples may be more likely than straight couples to share responsibility for household chores. This is true even for same-sex couples with kids.

Psychologist Darcy Lockman, PhD, author of All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, notes that one partner is also responsible for the majority of what researchers call the mental load — the burden of project-managing the household and thinking ahead about family responsibilities.

“It’s knowing that I have to schedule a pediatrician appointment, or knowing that we’re almost out of toilet paper,” Lockman explains. It’s also knowing that it’s time to see about having the stove repaired or getting the dog to the vet.

Whether it’s the physical tasks or the mental load, she adds that, for straight couples, “gendered assumptions leave the women in the default position as the handler of all of these things.”

This can result in a serious strain on the relationship. “A lot of research shows the ­adverse effects of the unequal division of labor in the household in terms of increases in conflict and hostility,” Lockman says.

In communities that don’t fully accept broader views of gender roles, these assumptions may be overt and articulated. But in more progressive relationships, they’re more likely to be unspoken, rooted in family experience and social norms.

So, should every relationship split tasks down the middle? Not necessarily.

True equality means jettisoning the unspoken stereotype that housework simply is women’s work, which can worm its unconscious way into the most well-meaning partnership.

More important for couples than abstract equality is equity, says University of Alberta social scientist Adam Galovan, PhD. “Equity means that you perceive the division of labor as being fair,” he explains. “People have different responsibilities in their lives, so the question is: How do they balance that in a way that they both agree on? It doesn’t have to be exactly 50-50.”

These strategies can help you find common ground.

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 of Experience LifeLife Time’s whole-life health and fitness magazine. 

Jon Spayde

Jon Spayde is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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