So a year ago when two of our interns, Jane and John, became engaged we saw an opportunity to study gender inequalities as it relates to sharing of household chores. For the six months before the wedding we would interview and observe both interns, who each lived alone, about their housework activities. Then we’d do the same for the first six months they lived together.
Jane and John, each living alone
One of the first things that struck us about both Jane and John, each living alone, was how clean were both of their respective kitchens. On our first visit, Jane had a dishwasher-full of items that she promptly put away. John was nearly as clean, with just a couple of items in the sink and one pan on the stove. Over time, though, we learned their ways of maintaining kitchen cleanliness were radically different. Immediately after preparing and eating every meal Jane would wipe down the counter, rinse her just-used dishes, pots, & pans and put them in the dishwasher. Every couple of days the dishwasher was full and she would run a cycle and then put the clean dishes away. John, on the other hand, would re-use those same few dishes we always saw in the sink, rinsing them first only if they were especially dirty. Usually John made a plain sandwich or microwaved leftovers or ordered pizza, but on the rare occasion that John would cook something, he reused that one pan that was always on the stove. Sometimes he would eat directly over the sink and bypass dishes and utensils altogether.
Average time/week for kitchen: Jane: 4 hours, John: 20 minutes.
We’ve already alluded to the difference in time spent preparing food every week. There are also big differences in shopping for food. Jane visits the grocery store ever few days, making lists and reading labels. John gets to the store a couple of times a month, and generally only visits the beer, meat, bread, and snack/condiment aisles.
Time on food purchase and preparation per week: Jane: 6 hours, John: 40 minutes.
Regarding clothing, we were struck by a big pile of clothes John had next to his bed (which we noticed was never made). John said “every day I take clean clothes out of the closet, and throw them in that pile when they’re dirty. When there aren’t any more clean clothes then I take everything to the laundry and wash it all at once”. Through observation we learned it wasn’t quite so simple; we observed John many times pulling an item from the pile, sniffing it, and then putting it on to be worn another day. In the six months of living-alone observation John washed that pile of clothes twice; once he included his bed sheets. Jane’s clothing habits were quite different. She put on fresh clothes every morning, and sometimes changed for the evening when she would go out with John or other friends. Once-worn clothes went into a laundry bin. Jane would wash a load, on average, every couple of days. Many of the items were ironed after washing (something we never observed John doing). Every couple of weeks Jane would also buy something new to wear, which John never seemed to do.
Average time/week on clothing: Jane: 7 hours, John: 20 minutes.
For general apartment cleanliness, John said “I like a clean apartment, so I clean up immediately whenever things get too dirty.” In practice, this meant that John vacuumed three times during the six months, cleaned his sink once, and his toilet/windows/refrigerator/etc… never. Jane’s policy was to clean everything each weekend (“spring-cleaning is a state of mind”), even if it was just a light dusting. In practice that meant that about twice a month her apartment had a thorough going-over.
Average time/week general cleaning: Jane: 3 hours, John: 5 minutes.
Jane and John, living together
It didn’t take Jane and John, after they’d moved in together in wedded bliss, to fall into a pattern of managing household work.
Kitchen & Food: Jane and John’s fresh young love is still very much blooming, which we saw nowhere more than in the kitchen where they like to cook together. Mary says “It takes twice as long to cook anything now, because John is clueless in the kitchen, but it’s worth it.” John says, “I spend a lot of time in the kitchen now, but food’s good, you know?” In practice, we observed that it’s not as equal as they proclaim, with Jane often starting dinner an hour before John even thinks about food, and usually finishing by the time John gets hungry and says “Hey, you want I should order a pizza or something?” John has learned to use new plates and silverware for each dinner, and to use the dishwasher after the meal, although he still hasn’t figured out how to empty it, saying “why don’t we use the plates right out of the dishwasher—they’re clean!” John does a lot more grocery shopping than he used to, going out about once a week to pick up the items on a list Jane has prepared for him, but somehow Jane manages to get to the store a couple of times per week, too, because now she goes through a lot more food than she used to.
Time/week on food chores (grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning): Jane: 14 hours. John: 4 hours.
Clothing: John continued his habit each day to take clean clothing from the closet and to put used clothing in a pile beside the bed. Jane continued her habits too, except that when she washed her clothing she would also pick up John’s used pile and wash that along with whatever was in her bin, so that Jane was washing at least as often as she used to but now was washing more clothing. After a few months of this we asked John about washing clothes and he said “same as always, I wait until I run out of clean cloths then wash the used pile… huh, come to think of it, since I’ve been married I never seem to run out of clean clothes any more and the dirty pile is always small. That’s weird, huh?” We said “so you spend less time on clothes now that you’re married”. “No,” he replied with a grunt, “Jane is always complaining that I need to help more with laundry and so I’m always helping her fold clothes, like, every day. Why in God’s sake would anyone ever want to fold clothes?”
Average time/week on clothing: Jane: 10 hours, John: 1.5 hours.
Everything else: Jane continued her policy of trying to at least dust and straighten everything every weekend. John continued his policy of not cleaning things until they got dirty, “which they never do because Jane has OCD or something and says ‘spring cleaning state of mind’ every weekend.” “And you never clean anything on your own,” she said. “That’s because nothing’s ever dirty,” he said. “Everything you touch is dirty, my God, have you seen the toilet seat!” “That only happened once because you were in such a rush to get me out of the bathroom so you could wax your vagina or some other womany bathroom thing–talk about time-consuming chores—geez those things take a lot of work!” This continued to escalate and degrade for quite a while.
Average time/week general cleaning (not including the time arguing over the issue): Jane: 4 hours, John: 1 hour.
Summary of what we learned from studying Jane and John’s housework:
Time spent on housework when they were living alone:
- Jane: 20 hours/week
- John: 85 minutes/week
Time spent on housework after moving in together as a couple:
- Jane: 28 hours/week
- John: 6.5 hours/week
Relative times spent on housework:
- As a married couple, Jane does 81% of the housework, John does 19%
- After getting married, Jane’s chore workload has increased by 40%
- After getting married, John’s chore workload has increased by 324%
Jane and John’s typical self-assessment:
Jane: "John won’t do any chores."
John: "I do chores all the time."
Jane: "Only if I remind you a hundred times."
John: "Why always with the nagging?"
Jane: "Do NOT use the N-word on me!"
But, alas, all is not lost. There is some harmony between the sexes. Both Jane and John can agree on two things:
- They agree that Jane does too much housework (although they do not agree that John does too little)
- They agree, emphatically, that same-sex marriage might not be such a bad thing