Sociologists on the “chore wars”

Time magazine’s latest cover story on “chore wars” features two competing explanations from sociologists:

The assumption that working women had become the Clydesdales of contemporary marriage can be traced back to the publication of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Second Shift in 1989. In the 1970s, Hochschild was a sociologist with two young children who was trying to get tenure at Berkeley, where she saw her male colleagues unencumbered by demands at home and was inspired to write about the working women’s double day. “It came from my own anguish, my own conflict,” she says…

Hochschild came up with that number by averaging data collected in the 1960s, spotlighting what is now clearly the product of a culture in transition, a lag between women’s entry into the workforce and the great domestic shakeout in which working women cut back on housework, often by outsourcing, and men reduced office hours and chipped in more at home. Yet Hochschild’s interpretation of that statistical blip in the 1960s came to define the plight of women in the 1990s and 2000s. The Second Shift was a huge crossover hit and sparked a huge surge of academic writing on the inequalities of the household…

One American sociologist, Suzanne Bianchi, stood on the sidelines of the why-men-aren’t-doing-more debate for many years. From 1978 to 1994, she was a demographer and statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau working with large represtnative samples that shed light on long-term changes at thepopulation level. Bianchi was looking at almost everything but housework – education, earnings, changes in employment – so she became aware of the pitfalls of focusing only on the domestic sphere. “Maybe men really were all jerks and not doing their fair share, or maybe they were allocating their time to other things. By isolating housework from other kinds of work, you lost track of the fact that families need money as well as time,” she says. “I began to get interested in what we really know. We think men don’t do anything, but is that right? Are we systematically missing what they do do?”…

Bianchi and her colleagues analyzed time-diary data from 2003 to ’05 and found that among couples in which both partners work full time, men’s greater hours of paid work counterbalanced women’s greater hours of unpaid work. A second shift, where it still existed, was most evident in dual-earner couples with children under the age of 6, but it was a difference of five hours more of combined paid and unpaid work for women a week, not 15. “That didn’t mean that The Second Shift was completely wrong, just that it was misleading,” says Bianchi, who published her analysis in 2009. “Another thing that got missed was that women shed housework when they’re employed full time, but they hold on to a lot of child care, and that’s a big piece of why The Second Shift resonates so much.”

The article suggests that the gap between the work of men and women has closed and there needs to a more nuanced explanation about the subject. It seems like the larger conversation would also be enhanced with more data rather individuals relying on personal anecdotes. For the forthcoming edition of The Second Shift (January 2011), will Hochschild also include updated/new data?

Two further issues:

1. The argument in this story works because of a methodological concern: men’s paid work counts in their total. If we look at just the figures for work within the home, there is still a decent gap between men and women. On one hand, we could consider all kinds of work to be equal (and work at a paid job certainly has its own stress and advantages). On the other hand, if an earlier goal was for men and women to equally share work at home, it hasn’t happened.

2. Where do we go with this data? The article suggests the arguments of The Second Shift resonate with newer generations. Will this article convince anyone that men are doing more work (or more equal work) or will it simply reinforce existing divides?

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