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Why Men Who Earn Less Still Do Less Housework

A new study shows how a couple's management of personal finances usually ends up with dad doing fewer dishes.

Dads may be able to buy their way out of doing the laundry, vacuuming, and other housework. That in itself is not surprising, as men have historically had fewer household responsibilities the more they made. But even when they don’t make more than their spouse, men do no more chores. A new study, the first of its kind to look at how individual couples broker money, power, and housework together, points to at least one reason why: If men are in charge of personal finances, they do fewer chores — regardless of who makes more money.

Women’s capacity to achieve more outside of the home has not puzzled social scientists in the past, but men’s inability to pick up the slack even when they are not primary earners has. A massive Harvard study indicates that when more men were out of work during the last recession and their wives became the breadwinners, many of them rarely took on more household chores. (It should be noted that when they did, this mitigated the increased divorce risk associated with husbands’ unemployment.)

Experts suspect that rigid gender norms are responsible for this, but money plays an apparent role as well. This new study shows that the person in charge of finances also seems to dictate who does more unpaid housework. “Housework provides a window into the ‘checks and balances’ of power and gender in couple relationships,” says co-author Dr. Yang Hu, a sociologist at Lancaster University, and when you look through that window, you can see earning power is only half of the story. The spouse who actually sets the budget and deals with joint finances gets to call the shots when it comes to unpaid work.

For this study, Hu and his colleagues analyzed two waves of the United Kingdom Household Longitudinal Study, which included 6,070 cohabitating couples ages 20 to 59. Participants were asked about the kind of housework they did, their income, and how they organized their finances with their partner. Results revealed that men used money to get out of housework by either handing money over and letting women handle finances, or by withholding it. When they withhold it, men and women engage in a bargaining process that women rarely win. 

“Men get away with not doing housework through both channels,” explains Hu. “It puts women in a very compromising position as they are left to do the lion’s share of housework.”

The one exception where women’s money seems to work in a similar way as men’s is when they hoard it. Women who had their own bank accounts were able to bargain with their husbands in more equitable ways. This is only the first study to look directly at how couples’ finances influence who does most of the unpaid work, and the findings need to be replicated. However, the research suggests that separate accounts may be the secret to getting guys to do the dishes and that women might benefit from doing one very specific household chore: paying the bills. 

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“If men still monopolize the management of household finances and financial decisions, then things are unlikely to change,” Hu says. “It’s therefore important for everyone to be able to access their own earnings. Educating and employing more women and settling the gender pay gap with gender equality flowing neatly into place at home as a result is certainly not the story this analysis is revealing.”