Who Does More at Home: Men or Women?

A new study suggests men and women are getting closer to 50-50 at home. But is it measuring the right thing?

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In the recent slew of coverage of What’s Holding Women Back from the Highest Echelons of Leadership, a recurring theme is the revolution at home. Or lack thereof.

Men, as I wrote in TIME’s recent cover story on Sheryl Sandberg’s book Leaning In, have generally made room for women in the workplace. But the home front remains more of a battleground. Most studies suggest that women are carrying the heavy end of the domestic load. Men are catching up. But they’re beginning to stagger a bit under the weight.

According to an interesting new Pew study, men have taken on vastly more of the domestic workload than they did in 1965 — about two and a half times as much. No surprises there. But a very small percentage of fathers bear the brunt of the housework and childcare in their home. Moms still spend about twice as much time with their children as dads do (13.5 hours per week for mothers in 2011, compared with 7.3 hours for fathers, according to Pew).

What has changed is the attitudes of these men have about the shift. They are quickly becoming O.K. with the idea that the mothers of their children will be working outside the home too. This trend has been quite dramatic: “In 2009, 54% of fathers with children under age 17 said the ideal situation for young children was to have a mother who did not work at all outside the home,” Pew reports. “Today only 37% of fathers say that — a drop of 17 percentage points.” This could well have something to do with the economy. The number of households who can survive on the income of only one of the two potential breadwinners has dwindled since the recent recession.

(MORE: Why Husbands Who Share Household Chores Miss Out on Sex)

Perhaps as a result, men and women are beginning to feel that old work-life-balance anxiety almost equally. Half the men Pew surveyed expressed difficulty juggling the demands of work and home, as did 56% of women. And more fathers than mothers worried that they weren’t spending enough time with the kids (46% vs. 23%). Obviously, this is largely because women actually do spend more time with the kids. But it raises an interesting question. If you’re the primary breadwinner, are you cut some slack at home? Does bringing home the bacon count as a home chore?

How does your home stack up? Pew has a nifty tool with which you can compare your division of household labor with those it surveyed. Note that the biggest chunk of males feel that they do as much housework and child care as their female partners. The biggest share of women feel they do more than the men in their lives. It’s unlikely they can both be right. Perhaps this gap is partly explained by the insufficiency of a time-usage study. Men may do as much around the house and with the kids. But women feel that this arena is still more their responsibility. They have to think about it more. (If you’re the person who remembers it’s pajama day at school, does that count as time spent?)

(MORE: Working Moms Multitask More Than Dads — and Like It Less)

It boils down to this: there’s a difference between spending time and paying attention. Women, in my long years of observation of this phenomenon, say more of their mental energy or bandwidth has to be set aside for matters of the hearth. They can’t silo their attention in the way men can. Until somebody figures out a way to do a bandwidth study, the gap between who thinks they do more and who actually does more is still going to be fertile ground for many a domestic tiff.