Copyright Janeen Baxter and Mark Western, 1996. One copy of this paper can be made for the purpose of personal, non-commercial use, subject to proper attribution to the author.





Satisfaction with Housework: Explaining the Paradox



Janeen Baxter and Mark Western

Sociology Program
Research School of Social Sciences
Australian National University
Canberra ACT 0200



Paper presented at The Australian Family Research Conference, Brisbane, 27-29 November 1996.



Abstract

This paper examines men's and women's levels of satisfaction with the domestic division of labour. In most households, women continue to undertake the bulk of childcare and housework duties and consequently spend significantly greater amounts of time on domestic labour than men. Men report high levels of satisfaction with these arrangements, but surprisingly we find that almost half of our sample of women also report satisfaction with these arrangements. This finding has been reported in a number of overseas studies. Our paper attempts to explain this apparent paradox. Using data from a recent national survey in Australia we explore variations in levels of satisfaction with the domestic division of labour in relation to a number of factors such as labour force attachment of husbands and wives, life cycle stage, attitudes to gender roles and husbands participation in non-traditional domestic tasks. Our findings raise implications for the meaning of equity and fairness within the household.



Introduction

The gender division of labour outside the household has undergone fairly rapid changes over the last twenty years. Although women have not achieved equality with men in paid work, as measured by the gender gap in earnings and authority and high levels of sex segregation, women's participation in paid employment has increased dramatically and higher proportions of married women are remaining in employment throughout the child-bearing and child-rearing years. Despite these changes however, the gender division of labour within the household has not changed a great deal. Most research still shows a clear division of labour along traditional lines with men participating most in outdoor work and women taking the primary responsibility for childcare and indoor activities such as cooking, cleaning and laundry. Moreover most wives spend over twice as much time on domestic work compared to their husbands.

One of the paradoxes that emerges in studies of the domestic division of labour is the large percentage of women who seem untroubled by this clearly inequitable division of labour. Many studies have found that women are satisfied with the division of household labour despite the fact that they are responsible for the bulk of the work (Benin and Agostinelli 1988; Blair and Johnson 1992; Lennon and Rosenfield 1994; Greenstein 1996; Demaris and Longmore 1996). These results raise questions about the meaning of fairness and equity within households, the way in which women view household work and the possibilities for change.

A number of theories have been proposed to explain these apparently contradictory arrangements. First, it has been suggested that women's lack of resources and power within marriage will lead to lower expectations about men's participation in domestic labour. Women with greater alternatives outside marriage, as indicated by greater earnings, educational experience and paid employment opportunities, will be more dissatisfied with inequitable domestic labour arrangements than women with fewer alternatives. Second it has been argued that gender role ideology encourages women to accept unequal work loads in the home. Traditional gender role ideology defines childcare and housework as women's responsibility while men are defined in terms of their role as the family breadwinner. Consequently women are unlikely to question arrangements which coincide with perceptions of men's and women's natural roles. Third women may perceive the division of domestic labour as satisfactory if their partners are working long hours in paid employment. In other words, women may be satisfied if they see their partners contributing to the household in ways other than by performing domestic tasks.

This paper investigates these issues using recent Australian data. We first present data on the division of household tasks in Australian households. Second we look at men's and women's levels of satisfaction with the domestic division of labour. Third we examine the factors which lead to variations in women's levels of satisfaction with the domestic division of labour.


Theory and Literature Review

Research on the family has consistently found that a high percentage of women, and not so surprisingly, a high percentage of men, believe that the division of domestic labour is fair, even though women report doing the bulk of the work. In the United States for example, Lennon and Rosenfield (1994), report that 67 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women in their sample of over 13,000 households feel that the division of housework is fair. At the same time, about one third of women compared to only 4 per cent of men see the division of housework as unfair. This patterning of results is evident in many studies (Benin and Agostinelli 1988; Sanchez 1994; Greenstein 1996; DeMaris and Longmore 1996).

Three main kinds of explanations have been proposed to explain these patterns. First some studies suggest that women's lack of power and resources in families leads women to accept unequal divisions of labour. Research has shown that having fewer economic resources than husbands is a significant determinant of the domestic division of labour (Ross 1987; Baxter 1993). As women's economic resources increase in comparison to their husbands, women spend less time on domestic labour and men spend more time on domestic labour. This suggests that having economic resources gives women greater power to influence the allocation of labour within households. Taking this argument one step further, some have argued that fewer resources will also influence wives perceptions and expectations about the division of household labour (Lennon and Rosenfield 1994; DeMaris and Longmore 1996). Women with few resources will have fewer alternatives to marriage and hence more to lose if the relationship were disrupted. Fewer resources will therefore lead to lower expectations since women who are trapped by limited options will be more likely to define their situation as fair and be satisfied with even minimal involvement by husbands in domestic labour compared to women with greater economic resources and greater options outside marriage.

A second explanation for women's relatively high levels of satisfaction with the domestic division of labour relates to gender role ideology. If most men and women still define childcare and housework as women's work, then women are less likely to be critical of inequitable divisions of labour in the household. Gender role ideology has been found to be a powerful determinant of the division of household labour with more egalitarian attitudes leading to more egalitarian divisions of labour (Pleck 1985; Baxter 1993). The implication is that attitudes will also be a significant predictor of levels of satisfaction with domestic labour. Women who see childcare and housework as an essential part of being 'good' wives and mothers are more likely to be satisfied with unequal divisions of household labour than women who reject traditional gender role ideology.

At the same time, family work is often seen as an expression of love for one's family (Game and Pringle 1983). The emotionalisation of houswork means that for many women doing housework is a way of expressing love for their family. Even if women do not enjoy doing housework and childcare, they may still be satisfied with the current situation since it is defined as essential work for people they love. Studies have shown that wives employment is often defined as secondary to husbands employment (Ferree 1991). For example, women's employment may be seen as an outlet for personal needs rather than as a necessary source of income (Weiss 1987). The corollary is that for both men and women, domestic work is women's primary responsibility and while husbands may be expected to help out, they are not expected to take full or even an equal responsibility for household work.

A third explanation concerns the amount of hours that men and women spend in paid employment. If husbands devote most of their time to paid employment while wives are employed part-time or not at all, then it is unlikely that wives will expect their husbands to spend an equal amount of time on domestic labour. In other words, wives may be satisfied with the division of household labour if the total number of hours that husbands and wives spend on work, paid and unpaid, is similar.

One other explanation for women's relative satisfaction with the domestic division of labour which has not received much attention in the literature concerns the kind of work that men do in the household. Most households have a clear gender division of labour with men taking most responsibility for outdoor work, such as mowing the lawn and house maintenance, and women taking most responsibility for indoor work, such as cooking and cleaning (Baxter 1993). Women may be more likely to be satisfied with this kind of division if their husbands participate in some non-traditional areas. For example, if men regularly take care of cooking meals, or help with cleaning up after meals, women may be more satisfied than in cases where men do no indoor work. In other words, satisfaction may be related to who does what around the household rather than the amount of time spent doing household chores. Some support for this view has been found by Benin and Agostinelli (1988) who show that wives' levels of satisfaction increase when husbands take on some of wives' traditional tasks, even when the amount of time husbands spend on household chores is much less than the amount of time spent by their wives.

This raises issues about the meaning of equity in households. Equity may not be judged in terms of time, but in relation to some other desired outcome, such as avoiding tasks that one dislikes and having a responsive and caring partner who is willing to help out. For many women, the immediate goal may not be to increase the number of tasks that men perform in the household, or to increase the amount of time that men spend on domestic labour, but rather to have a partner who is prepared to have some input into 'women's work.' At the same time, if women compare their workloads to other women, for example their mothers, rather than to their husbands, they may be more likely to judge their own situation as satisfactory. If husbands are perceived to be participating in family work more than the previous generation of men, even if their involvement is still relatively low compared to women, then women may be inclined to judge their own situations as satisfactory. The comparison referent then, may be an important determinant of women's level of satisfaction with household arrangements.

One other possible explanation for women's high levels of satisfaction with the domestic division of labour is that women are inclined to accept the gender division of labour even if it is objectively inequitable. Gender inequality is a pervasive feature of most modern industrial societies and women are faced with inequitable situations in both paid and unpaid work. In order to deal with this women may be forced to readjust their expectations and demands. Research has shown that women report higher levels of satisfaction with paid work compared to men, even though women are typically located in low-paying, low-status positions (Andrisani 1978; Baxter, Lynch-Blosse and Western 1996). This tends to suggest that women experience work differently to men, evaluate their circumstances in different ways to men and have different expectations to men. In other words, women may deal with situations over which they feel they have little control by defining them as satisfactory.

Thompson (1991) has suggested that consideration of these issues points to the importance of understanding justice as a social process. Justice may be defined in interaction with others and may be defined in gender-specific ways. What is considered satisfactory and fair may be different for men and women and may differ depending on the sphere of social life under consideration.

In this paper we investigate men's and women's levels of satisfaction with the division of childcare and division of housework in the household. Many studies use the terms 'fair' and 'satisfactory' interchangeably. But they may not necessarily coincide. Recognising that a situation is unfair may be a first step in defining it as unsatisfactory and moving toward changing the situation. On the other hand, women may recognise that a situation is unfair but still define it as satisfactory since they are incapable of envisaging alternatives. Levels of satisfaction may therefore be a more important determinant of a desire for change than whether a situation is defined as fair.


Data, Variables and Methods

The data for this study are taken from a national survey of 2780 men and women in Australia conducted in 1993 as part of the Class Structure of Australia project. The sample, selected from electoral rolls, included respondents in paid employment as well as those outside the labour force. In the current analyses we restrict the sample to men and women who are either married or currently living with a partner (N=2008). For the analyses of childcare patterns we further restrict the sample to men and women with children under the age of 10 years living in the household (N=541). The data were collected by means of a self-completed questionnaire.

The survey included a range of questions about the domestic division of labour.

Satisfaction with the domestic division of labour was measured by asking: How satisfied are you with the way you and your partner divide childcare tasks? And how satisfied are you with the way you and your partner divide housework tasks? We construct two scales based on these items measuring satisfaction with childcare and satisfaction with housework. The scales range from 1 (not at all satisfied) to 4 (very satisfied).

Hours on childcare and hours on housework is measured by a series of items asking respondents to indicate how many hours they spend on selected tasks per week. The childcare tasks include feeding children, changing nappies, bathing and dressing children, getting children to bed, and helping children with homework. The housework tasks include preparing meals, cleaning up after meals, shopping for groceries, cleaning the house, putting the garbage out, washing, ironing, mowing the lawns, gardening and home maintenance/improvement.

Spouse's contribution to family income is the percentage of total household income contributed by the spouse in the last financial year.

Gender role attitudes is a scale based on four items concerning attitudes to gender roles. The items asked respondents to indicate the extent of their agreement with the following statements:

If both husband and wife work, they should share equally in the housework and childcare.

There should be satisfactory childcare facilities so that women can take jobs outside the home.

It is better for the family if the husband is the principal breadwinner and the wife has primary responsibility for the home and children.

Ideally, there should be as many women as men in important positions in government and business.

These items were combined into a scale ranging from 4 (traditional attitudes) through 16 (egalitarian attitudes).

Satisfaction with paid work is based on one item asking respondents to indicate their level of agreement with the statement: My work is a major source of satisfaction in my life. A low score (1) indicates strong disagreement while a high score (4) indicates strong agreement.

Husband's participation in non-traditional tasks. We also construct a series of dichotomous variables measuring whether or not husband's participate in tasks which are typically defined as women's work. These variables are coded 1 if husbands do participate and 0 if they do not participate. The tasks included are each of the childcare items plus the six indoor housework tasks (preparing meals, cleaning up after meals, grocery shopping, cleaning the house, washing and ironing).

Age is the respondent's age in years.

Education is coded as years of schooling.

We first present some descriptive analyses of the amount of time that men and women spend on domestic labour and the relationship between time spent and levels of satisfaction with the domestic division of labour. We then present the results from two ordinary least squares regression equations predicting women's levels of satisfaction with the division of childcare and the division of housework.

Results

The first table shows the number of hours married men and women spend on housework tasks in an average week. There are two main points to note about these figures. First women spend far longer amounts of time on domestic labour than men as indicated by the figures for total housework hours. This figure indicates the average number of hours married men and women spend on housework per week. The second point to note is that there is a clear gender division of labour in housework tasks. Women are responsible for most indoor tasks , for example, cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing, while men take major responsibility for most outdoor tasks. These patterns show remarkable consistency over time. In comparison to identical data on housework hours that we collected in 1986 for example, we find no change in the gender division of labour within the household, only a small increase in the amount of time that men are spending on housework, and no decrease in the amount of time that women are spending on housework.


Table 1. Hours per Week spent on Housework Tasks.(a)

Men
Mean (S.D.)
Women
Mean (S.D.)
Preparing meals3.1 (5.2)11.9 (7.3)
Cleaning up after meals2.7 (3.2)6.8 (5.6)
Grocery shopping1.5 (2.0)3.1 (4.7)
Cleaning the house1.8 (3.2)9.2 (8.3)
Taking out garbage0.5 (0.8)0.4 (1.1)
Washing0.8 (1.7)5.1 (4.6)
Ironing0.3 (0.9)3.0 (3.9)
Mowing the lawns1.3 (1.4)0.5 (1.3)
Gardening2.5 (3.8)2.4 (3.7)
Home maintenance/ improvements
3.0 (3.9)0.9 (2.1)
Total housework hours16.8 (15.2)42.7 (25.4)
N(b)764820

(a) T-tests indicate all means for men and women significantly different at p (b) N's vary slightly for individual items.


We would expect that women would express high levels of dissatisfaction with this clearly unequal gender division of labour. But as Tables 2 through 5 indicate, only about half the women in our sample report feeling dissatisfied with current arrangements. Tables 2 and 3 show men's and women's levels of satisfaction with the division of childcare tasks and whether respondents feels that their partner could do more childcare. While men are clearly more satisfied than women with current arrangements, a relatively high percentage of women (40 per cent) report feeling very satisfied with the division of childcare tasks and only 32 per cent feel that their partner could do more. Similar patterns are evident in relation to satisfaction levels with the division of housework tasks. Again men are clearly more satisfied with current arrangements than women, but nevertheless 47 per cent of women report feeling very satisfied with the way housework tasks are divided and only 32 per cent would like to see their partners do more.


Table 2. How satisfied are you with the way you and your partner divide childcare tasks? (Column percentages)


MenWomen

Very satisfied

65

40
Somewhat satisfied 32 47
Not very satisfied 2 10
Not at all satisfied 1 3
N362392



Table 3. In your present situation do you think your partner could do more of the childcare? (Column percentages)


MenWomen
Yes 7 32
No 93 68
N336376


Table 4. How satisfied are you with the way you and your partner divide housework tasks? (Column percentages)


MenWomen
Very satisfied 75 47
Somewhat satisfied 23 39
Not very satisfied 2 11
Not at all satisfied 1 3
N949988



Table 5. In your present situation do you think your partner could do more of the housework? (Column percentages)


MenWomen
Yes 8 32
No 92 68
N936971


As Table 6 shows there is also relatively little variation in levels of satisfaction in relation to perceptions about who spends most time on childcare and housework. Most women report feeling very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the division of childcare and division of housework regardless of their perception of who spends most time on these activities. For example, 41 per cent of women report feeling very satisfied and 42 per cent report feeling somewhat satisfied with housework arrangements even though they also report doing most of the work.


Table 6. Satisfaction with Division of Childcare and Division of Housework by Time Spent on Childcare and Housework for Men and Women. (Column percentages)

CHILDCARE

MenWomen

I Spend Most TimeTime Spent is EqualPartner spends Most TimeI Spend Most TimeTime Spent is EqualPartner Spends Most Time
Very satisfied
5081 59 3171
-
Somewhat satisfied
5015 38 5227100
Not very satisfied
- 4 2 13 3-
Not at all satisfied
-- 1 4--
N 847269297751

HOUSEWORK
MenWomen
I Spend Most TimeTime Spent is EqualPartner spends Most TimeI Spend Most TimeTime Spent is EqualPartner Spends Most Time
Very satisfied
39 84 75 41 78 61
Somewhat satisfied
421424 42 21 35
Not very satisfied
16 2 1 13 1 4
Not at all satisfied
3 - 1 4 - -
N38139747796152 23


How do we explain these results? In Tables 7 and 8 we report the results from two ordinary least squares regression analyses predicting women's level of satisfaction with the division of childcare and women's level of satisfaction with the division of housework. We focus only on women since there is so little variation in men's levels of satisfaction with the domestic division of labour and since the issue for men seems relatively straightforward. Given that men spend so little time on domestic labour we would expect them to report high levels of satisfaction with the division of labour in the home.

In each model we include measures of each of the three factors identified by previous research, gender role attitudes, spouse's contribution to the family income and amount of time spent in paid employment. As discussed earlier we would expect that women with egalitarian sex role attitudes would be less satisfied with the domestic division of labour then women with traditional sex role attitudes. We also expect that as women's contribution to the household income increases relative to their partners that women will express less satisfaction with the domestic division of labour. And we expect that as women's time spent in paid employment increases women will be less satisfied with the division of household labour. We also include a measure of women's level of satisfaction with paid work. Finally we include measures of men's involvement in non-traditional childcare and household tasks.

Table 7. OLS Regression Analysis of Factors predicting Women's Satisfaction with the Division of Childcare.

b (s.e.)
Hours on childcare-.004 (.006)
Hours in paid work-.001 (.004)
Spouse's contribution to family income-.001 (.003)
Gender role attitudes-.035 (.036)
Satisfaction with paid work.031 (.081)
Husband feeds children.385 (.156)*
Husband changes nappies.006 (.018)
Husband bathes/dresses children.378 (.146)*
Husband puts children to bed.028 (.023)
Husband helps children with homework.010 (.022)
Age.009 (.12)
Education-.035 (.026)
Intercept3.44 (.732)
Adj R2.087
N154

*p

Table 8. OLS Regression Analysis of Factors predicting Women's Satisfaction with the Division of Housework.

b (s.e.)
Hours on housework-.000 (.002)
Hours in paid work-.004 (.002)
Spouse's contribution to family income.001 (.001)
Gender role attitudes-.083 (.020)***
Satisfaction with paid work.122 (.042)**
Husband prepares meals.147 (.096)
Husband cleans up after meals.272 (.076)***
Husband does grocery shopping.128 (.081)
Husband cleans the house-.004 (.007)
Husband does washing.304 (.109)**
Husband does ironing.197 (.108)*
Age.003 (.003)
Education-.026 (.015)
Intercept3.98
Adj R2.13
N478

** p *** p

The results for women's levels of satisfaction with childcare shown in Table 7 show no support for the three factors identified in the literature - gender role attitudes, relative economic resources and time spent in paid employment, but do suggest that men's involvement in non-traditional childcare tasks does increase women's levels of satisfaction with childcare. If men participate in feeding children or bathing and dressing children women's levels of satisfaction increase.

Similarly in Table 8 the results indicate that men's participation in non-traditional housework tasks increases women's levels of satisfaction with the division of housework. The results here indicate that women's satisfaction increases when husbands are involved in cleaning up after meals, doing the washing and doing the ironing. This suggests that it may not be the amount of time that men spend on domestic labour, but rather their willingness to help out in some non-traditional areas that contributes to women's levels of satisfaction.

In addition the model for housework indicates that gender role attitudes are significant, with more liberal or egalitarian attitudes leading to lower levels of satisfaction with the division of housework. Interestingly there is no support in either model for the economic resources hypothesis that women with greater economic power will have lower levels of satisfaction, or for the paid work time hypothesis that women who spend longer periods in paid work will have lower levels of satisfaction. Similarly neither model suggests that women's time spent on domestic labour is related to levels of satisfaction with the domestic division of labour.


Summary and Conclusions

1. Women spend far greater amounts of time on domestic labour than men and there is a clear gender division of labour in Australian households. Furthermore there is little evidence that these patterns have changed over the last 7 years and little reason to expect that they will change greatly over the next few years.

2. Despite this inequitable situation a significant proportion of women express satisfaction with the household division of labour. Although far fewer women than men are satisfied with current arrangements.

3. The explanation seems to lie in gender role attitudes and the extent to which men participate in non-traditional tasks. Most men and women still believe that housework and childcare are women's responsibility. This set of beliefs has implications for the way in which women view the domestic division of labour. It is no doubt difficult to envisage alternatives to a set of arrangements which are viewed as natural and inevitable. Moreover if men participate in some conventional female chores women are likely to feel that their partners are contributing above and beyond normal expectations, and hence are likely to feel more satisfied than those women whose partners do not contribute in non conventional areas. In other words, it is the kind of work that men do around the home rather than the amount of time they spend doing it that contributes to women's levels of satisfaction.

4. These results do not imply that women enjoy doing housework, or that they like housework. Women may recognise that the division of labour is unfair and may not enjoy housework. But they may still be satisfied with the current arrangements.


References

Andrisani, P. 1978. Job Satisfaction among Working Women. Signs 3: 588-607.

Baxter, Janeen. 1993. Work at Home. The Domestic Division of Labour. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Baxter, Janeen, Mark Lynch-Blosse and John Western. 1996. 'Gender Differences in Work Satisfaction.' Australian Journal of Social Issues 31 (3) August: 291-309.

Benin, Mary Holland and Joan Agostinelli. 1988. 'Husbands' and Wives' Satisfaction with the Division of Labor.' Journal of Marriage and the Family 50 May: 349-361.

DeMaris, Alfred and Monica A. Longmore. 1996. 'Ideology, Power, and Equity: Testing Competing Explanations for the Perception of Fairness in Household Labor.' Social Forces 74 (3) March: 1043-1071.

Ferree, Myra Marx. 1991. 'The Gender Division of Labor in Two-Earner Marriages. Dimensions of Variability and Change.' Journal of Family Issues 12 (2) June: 158-180.

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Lennon, Mary Clare and Sarah Rosenfield. 1994. 'Relative Fairness and the Division of Housework: The Importance of Options.' American Journal of Sociology 100 (2) September: 506-531.

Kane, Emily and Laura Sanchez.1994. 'Family Status and Criticism of Gender Inequality at Home and at Work.' Social Forces 72 (4) June: 1079-1102.

Pleck, Joseph. 1985. Working Wives/Working Husbands. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Ross, Catherine. 1987. 'The Division of Labor at Home.' Social Forces 65 (3): 816-833.

Sanchez, Laura. 1994. 'Gender, Labor Allocations, and the Psychology of Entitlement within the Home.' Social Forces 73 (2), December: 533-553.

Thompson, Linda. 1991. 'Family Work. Women's Sense of Fairness.' Journal of Family Issues 12 (2) June: 181-196.

Weiss, R.S. 1987. 'Men and their Wives' Work. In F. J. Crosby (ed), Spouse, Parent, Worker: On Gender and Multiple Roles. New Haven: Yale University Press, p 109-121.


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