We’ve come a long way as a society in terms of gender equality. Men are teachers, women are doctors, and no one flinches. As I like to tell my daughters, they can grow up to be anything they want to be — except fathers.
But new research in the American Journal of Sociology shows that consciously or not, men who work in “gender-atypical” occupations — ones comprising mostly women — tend to spend more time at home doing quintessentially male chores. They putter around with the cars, take care of the yard, fix things around the house — you know, guy stuff.
When stacked up against men who have jobs where men and women are equally represented, men in gender-atypical jobs put in an extra hour each week on typically male housework. What’s more, these men’s wives stick to female-typed tasks, spending about four hours more each week cooking dinner, vacuuming or throwing in a load of laundry. Meanwhile, women who work in male-centric professions also tend to pursue more female-typed housework but not with the same consistency as men in female-dominated arenas — perhaps because they perceive it as less of a threat to their femininity. (It should also be noted that a different study in the Journal of Family Psychology found that doing housework after a day on the job isn’t good for anyone, regardless of gender.)
What’s going on here? It seems to be a manifestation of what sociologists call the “neutralization of gender deviance.” Or, in plainspeak, “men are trying to bolster their masculinity at home,” says Daniel Schneider, the study’s author and a doctoral student in sociology and social policy at Princeton University.
“It’s counterintuitive in a sense,” says Schneider. “Maybe what we’re seeing here is that men who are gender-deviant in the market are doing compensatory action at home by doing more typically male chores.”
Schneider used data on thousands of married, heterosexual couples from the National Survey of Families and the American Time Use Survey from 1992 to 1994 that asked people how much time they spend on household tasks and noted their occupations, then merged that with census data about the gender composition of various occupations. The most typical occupations for men included drilling, mining and construction; women were most likely to be secretaries, dental hygienists or kindergarten teachers.
Women who participated in the survey said they spent 27 hours each week cleaning, washing, preparing meals, shopping and doing laundry compared to the 10 hours their husbands spent doing the same type of chores. Men devoted six hours per week to typically male tasks while women spent two hours doing that sort of work.
Truth be told, Schneider was surprised by the findings. He’d expected to discover that men in gender-typical jobs — a mechanic, for example — would spend more time at home working on car or home maintenance. By that logic, he also anticipated that men in male-atypical jobs would come home and do more cooking and cleaning-type housework typically associated with women.
But humans don’t always make sense. “The market and home are really intertwined and influence each other,” says Schneider. “But they are not necessarily intertwined in a rational way. Instead, they’re intertwined in a way that’s about cultural salience and the meaning of gender.”
In essence, despite all our progress, perceived threats to masculinity are still felt much more strongly in our society than threats to feminity.
The good news? The total amounts of time that men and women spend doing housework has changed over the years: women’s time has declined over the last 50 years to 18 hours a week for married couples, while men’s time has risen to an extent, to 10 hours per week. The hours men spend toiling at home have been fairly flat since 1985, but women’s time has continued to drop.
Says Schneider: “The progress is real.”