You could call it enlightened self-interest: I had just proposed to my long-term girlfriend and, as the FT’s economics reporter, was intending to take the same rigorous, data-driven approach to matrimonial bliss that I use to write about British productivity.
The idea originally came from a book. In The Second Shift, first published in 1989, the US sociologist Arlie Hochschild focused on a particular problem facing modern couples: the emergence of the two-job family in the final decades of the 20th century had not been accompanied by similar changes outside the workplace. This left many working women in effect working a double shift — one at the office, and one, unpaid, at home.
Through interviews and close observation of families, Hochschild saw that these arrangements were leading to unhappiness. Stressed and overworked women were resentful of partners who failed to do their fair share at home; in turn, clueless men wondered why their wives were no longer as affectionate as they used to be.
Keen to avoid this fate, I convinced my girlfriend to join me in an experiment. We would use the techniques of modern social science to step around the pitfalls that other couples had stumbled into. We would both fill out the “time-use” surveys that academics employ to peer inside family life and find out how equal we really were.
Last month, on one weekday and one day at the weekend, we wrote down what we were doing during each 10-minute period, who we were doing it with and how satisfied we were at the time. Then, with the help of Man-Yee Kan, associate professor of sociology at Oxford university who is investigating western European and east Asian societies, we would collate the data to help us to understand how we fitted into the wider picture.
My suspicion was that while we both did the same kinds of chores, I got off lightly in terms of the amount — that I was able, through a mix of charm and laziness, to put off doing my bit while my girlfriend Gabriele picked up the slack. “I expected our share of housework to be the same,” Gabi revealed later, “so I was surprised.”
I don’t think I deliberately put off doing the washing-up the night before, but I started the first day of the experiment by banking a good 20 minutes of chores before work had even begun. But that was about all I managed to do; the rest of the day was spent in the office and at an after-work Spanish lesson with no time left over to extend my lead over Gabi, who works away from home during the week.
On the second day she caught up. Cannily, she offered to shop and make breakfast for guests who were visiting, while I entertained them. Fortunately, attempting to pay a water bill later in the day was a logistical nightmare, and I managed to log a further 30 minutes trying to give Thames Water some money, offsetting the time she spent cleaning the bathroom.
Clearly, one issue with the experiment was that we were both aware we were taking part and may have tweaked our behaviour. But in reality it did not seem possible to game the experiment in any significant way — we had too much to do in too little time. It did make me more conscious of the mundane everyday tasks that fill up our hours, and the way we divvy them up without discussion, taking it upon ourselves to do the jobs we each think need doing most urgently at that moment.
A focus on how we spend our time has increased as economics has paid more attention to the role of women. Traditionally, economic output statistics excluded unpaid work at home, which was mostly done by women. It turns out that was quite a lot of labour to exclude: Britain’s Office for National Statistics estimates that the total value of unpaid household service work was £1.24tn in 2016 — roughly 63 per cent of total UK national income. And far from diminishing, over the past decade, unpaid work has grown more rapidly than the traditional economy as the time we spend caring for elderly relatives increases.
For economists, time is the ultimate scarce resource.
Daniel Hamermesh, a labour economist and author of the forthcoming book Spending Time, tells me that as societies have got richer, what we do with our time has become more important to us. With wealth comes increased choices, but not more hours in which to indulge them. “You can’t pay people to enjoy your leisure,” he says. “You can pay someone to have sex with you, but you can’t pay someone to have sex for you.”
Time-use diaries of the sort Gabriele and I filled out are an economist’s main tool for looking at how work gets distributed within the home. They were probably first used in 1913 by Maud Pember Reeves, a journalist and member of the Fabian Women’s Group. She recorded the schedules of young mothers living in London’s slums in her book Round About a Pound a Week. The research showed, she wrote, that poor mothers “need not only far more money, but far more help”.
Nowadays, as governments have become more interested in the wellbeing of their citizens and not just the kinds of economic activity they can tax, official statistics agencies conduct their own surveys and publish estimates of how much leisure time the average man or woman enjoys, just as they produce data on inflation or economic growth.
The surveys reveal national differences: in the latest year for which data are available, the average working-age Swedish woman did 28 per cent more unpaid work than a similarly aged man. In Spain, women did twice as much unpaid work as men, and in South Korea, women did more than four times as much unpaid work.
Women in Britain do about 60 per cent more unpaid work than men, meaning the UK, along with other English-speaking countries such as the US or New Zealand, sits somewhere in the middle. In the jargon of sociology these are the “transitional” countries, moving between traditional family patterns towards more equal structures.
My girlfriend and I start off in a better position than many other couples: having no children, we do not have to perform the tricky task of balancing the demands of our careers against childcare. Our sole duties are to look after the flat we rent together, go to work and have fun.
Yet despite these relatively benign circumstances, and my good intentions, our time-use test revealed that our relationship already looks pretty inegalitarian. She spends more time on housework than I do and we do different sorts of tasks. What British prime minister Theresa May referred to as the “boy jobs and girl jobs” also applied in our household: I paid the bills, she cleaned.
Over the two days we kept diaries, my girlfriend spent 200 minutes on housework, while I did 140. This allowed me to enjoy 400 minutes of leisure time compared to her 300. In this respect we are typical: on average in the UK, men enjoy five hours more leisure time a week than women, according to the ONS.
Kan’s report on our experiment found “the task segregation also reflects a degree of conformity with societal expectation around whose work it is to do certain tasks”. There was one bright note, though, which I seized on: “Gavin spends almost twice as much time on housework on his reported weekend day than the national average for men of his age.”
But it is not only the time that matters, it is what you do with it. I cook, a task I treat as much as a hobby as a chore.
My girlfriend cleans more, a job we both hate but that she ends up doing. “Some of the tasks I don’t count as housework if they don’t take very long,” Gabi explains. “Putting it into the time sheet made me realise they take a lot longer than I thought.”
After starting a family, women often do more of the “routine” childcare, such as picking up children from school or making sure they are clean and dressed. Men, even when they do the same amount, will tend to do tasks that can be more easily fitted around the working day, such as helping with homework. That makes it easier for men to advance in their careers, one potential explanation for the gender pay gap.
Particularly in areas such as law or banking, “There’s a phase in the career, late-twenties to mid-thirties, where there is a massive return to working long hours,” says Christian Bredemeier, a professor at the University of Cologne. “Women that work a lot at home are excluded from those kinds of jobs.”
If Gabi and I follow the patterns of a typical couple, it is only likely to get worse. Kan tells me that the amount of unpaid work that women do tends to increase after marriage and then again after the birth of their first child. Men do more housework after their children are born but then, as the kids get older, they tend to return to their pre-kids ways.
When I ask why marriage changes behaviour, Kan suggests housework may be “a mechanism for ‘doing gender.’” After getting married, straight couples tend to identify more with the roles they have traditionally been assigned. What’s more, she says, when women far out-earn their husbands, “they will do even more housework”, whereas if couples were just trading work for money — with one earning and the other looking after the house — you would expect to see the opposite.
Gay couples tend to be more egalitarian but some studies have found they too internalise gender roles. The partner in a same-sex couple who worked longer hours would typically do more “masculine tasks”, according to one study, while those who did more of the childcare would do the “feminine tasks”.
The share of housework done by women in Japan in 2016 — down from 93% in 1991
Abbie Goldberg, a professor at Clark University and author of Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children, tells me that “same-sex couples normally have fewer preconceived ideas of how relationships ‘ought to be’”, but there is an advantage to one person focusing on childcare and the other earning. Without traditional gender roles as a guide, gay couples tend to negotiate. Using the example of how cooking can be creative, she tells me that, “The values and value that we assign to tasks is often a reflection of gendered stereotypes, but if we have the freedom to explore what we like and are good at, or at least don’t hate, then there is more room for enacting arrangements that are pleasing, or at least tolerable.”
It may be “efficient” for couples to specialise, Bredemeier says, “if you’re certain you’re going to stay together”. But if you later split up, the consequences can be significant: one person may have had a lucrative career and the other has missed out.
We get our ideas of gender from our parents and the wider society we are born into: highly educated Swedish men now do more childcare because it is seen as “high status”, says Kan, while Swedish women who out-earn their partners no longer “compensate” by doing more housework.
Libertad González, a professor of labour economics at the Universitat de Pompeu Fabra, says public policy tends to encourage the idea that it is a woman’s job to look after children. Generally, maternity-leave policies are more generous than paternity leave. “It’s just expected that women will do more of the childcare than men,” she says.
Some of this is not my fault then: we all absorb the world around us. The first step is trying to be more conscious when making decisions and not falling back on stereotypes.
Back in the 1980s, Hochschild would ask her ambitious female students whether any of them had talked to their boyfriends about how they would split housework and childcare to balance work and family. Most would reply with a vague “not really”, she wrote. “I don’t believe these lively, inquiring 18- to 22-year-old students haven’t thought about the problem. I believe they are afraid of it. And since they think of it as a ‘private’ problem, each also feels alone.”
There has been some progress since then. According to Kan, the share of housework done by women in the UK has fallen from just over three-quarters in the early 1980s to slightly less than two-thirds now. Looking ahead, Gabi believes that if we have children, it will change the balance “quite a bit because we already don’t have that much free time we could spend on childcare”. The experiment revealed we both work a lot more and sleep a lot less than most people of our age. “I would like us to share childcare equally,’’ she says, “but I feel that making that happen would take a lot of effort on both our parts.”
For now, her main concern is cleaning. Left to me, she feels the flat would not be up to scratch; her response is to take it on herself. She could get me to do it, but does not think it is worth it — and would feel slightly guilty, she says, if I was doing more of the housework. While I feel guilty about the opposite happening, I am not sure we will ever get to gender parity. It is too easy in the busyness of everyday life to let good intentions lapse and fall back on bad habits and unconscious biases.
The number of minutes of housework carried out by Gavin during the experiment; his girlfriend Gabi did 200
Kan encourages me to think of it in terms of impersonal social forces. We are among the more equal couples, she tells me, and “it reflects what happens in the UK and your education levels”. Yet while western societies are becoming more equal — at work and at home — in Japan, women’s share of housework has fallen only slightly, from 93 per cent in 1991 to 87 per cent in 2016. “Gender norms are deeply rooted,” she adds.
It’s an unsettling thought. It would be nice to think that there will only be two people in my impending marriage, Gabi and me. But, in reality, there will be generations of men and women in there with us, making decisions when we’re not looking.
Gavin Jackson is an FT economics reporter
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