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Is Woman's Work Still Never Ending?

John Grady, Wheaton College (MA)


In 1989 Arlie Hochschild published The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home. Her argument was simple. One of the great revolutions of the twentieth century - the dramatic influx into the paid labor force by married women and especially mothers - had not been followed by husbands taking up the slack on the home front. Thus, after a full day at work, women found that they were still primarily responsible for the shopping, cleaning, cooking, and other domestic tasks.

Just how much work around the house do men and women do, and - as time has passed - is there any evidence that these tasks are being shared more equally? The General Social Survey (GSS) asked various questions about who did the housework in both 1994 and 2002. These included: caring for sick family members (CARESICK and CARESIK1), shopping for groceries (SHOPFOOD and SHOP1), planning or preparing meals (DINNER and COOKING1), cleaning (asked only in 2002 as CLEAN1), doing the laundry (LAUNDRY and LAUNDRY1), and making small household repairs (REPAIRS and REPAIRS1)*.

All of these tasks have traditionally been considered to be "women's work," with the exception of small household repairs, which men were expected to do. Querying the GSS for how men and women who were both married and worked full-time responded in 1994, we see the following pattern. Women claimed that both partners shared in the "women's" work anywhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of the time: 40 percent, food shopping, cooking,and laundry; 50 percent, caring for the sick (Table 1).

Table 1

Men, however, responded that small home repairs were only shared 14 percent of the time (Table 2). As for caring for the sick and cooking, men's estimate for how much they shared the work matched what the women said about their contribution. In the case of shopping and laundry men actually claimed that they shared the work equally less often than women had estimated On the other hand, women reported that they shared equally in small home repairs more often than the men allowed.

Table 2

Men who claimed that only one of the partners did the work acknowledged that the burden fell disproportionately on women, and overwhelmingly so, by anywhere from 10 percent (shopping) to 50 percent (caring for the sick) to one (Table 2). Women, as one might expect, reported shouldering an even heavier share of the burden (Table 1).

Generally speaking, men concur with women's estimates, although claiming slightly more credit than the women recognize.

Responses to survey questions like these are tricky and can be influenced by both ideology and sentiment and so may understate, or overstate, what one party or another actually does. A woman, for example, might resent her partner's lack of effort and undervalue his real contribution. On the other hand, another woman who is hoping that dreams will still come true may overestimate her husband's actual contribution. While a student can never be certain that the figures are an exact reflection of reality, it is clear that the sexual division of labor in the household has persisted well into the relatively recent present (1994).

Is there any evidence of change since 1994? A comparison of GSS data from 2002 (Tables 3 and 4) with the 1994 responses (Tables 1 and 2) suggests the following trends. Women report that men are somewhat more likely to be entirely responsible for traditionally female household chores: 12 percent doing the cooking and laundry topped the list in 2002 versus 5 percent doing the shopping in 1994. Nevertheless, women respond that there has been a big drop in the number of households where the work is either shared or done equally. Finally, women report that the burden on them to do the chores alone has increased between 4 to 8 percentage points on every category of household work. In other words, while more men are doing all of the chores, less share the burden equally with their wives. As women report it, therefore, things seem to have gotten worse.

Table 3

The men's perspective is quite different. While they think they are somewhat more likely to be responsible for all of the chores, and only slightly less likely to share in the burden equally, they see women doing 2 to 11 percentage points less of the housework on their own. Both men and women acknowledge that males still do the bulk of the home repairs and that there hasn't been much change in this regard, although women claim they are involved in these activities twice as often as men allow.

Table 4

Unfortunately, the GSS hasn't asked these questions since 2002, so it is hard to figure out what might be happening today. But one suggestive bit of evidence that might be relevant to consider is to see how younger (age 18 to 39) working married couples differed from their older counterparts. Younger couples, who would have been born after the rise of the modern feminist movement, might prove to be more committed to equality than those who are older. And that is indeed the case. Table 5 shows that, with the puzzling exception of doing the laundry, younger women reported that their male partners were more fully engaged in household chores than older men, by as much as 12 percentage points in the case of cooking and cleaning.

Table 5

Interestingly enough, however, the gap between male and female perceptions appears to have widened among the young. For many tasks, men generally claim that more of the work is being done equally than women do (Table 5). Thus, older men claim that 43 percent of the care of the sick is shared in their homes, while women report that this only happens in 38 percent of the cases, a difference of five percentage points. Notice, however, that the gap between men and women has widened to 15 percentage points among younger workers.

Table 5

Table 6 shows how much the gap between younger men and women's perceptions differ from those of their older counterparts. Positive numbers indicate that the gap has widened and negative ones that it has narrowed. We can draw two conclusions from this trend. First, men appear to believe that shared work is a good thing and that they are doing more of it. Second, women aren't buying it. Catie Caporizzo, a student at Wheaton College in Massachusetts who studied this issue concludes, "the concept of a ‘second shift' seems to still be a strong issue and a hindrance towards complete acceptance of nontraditional gender roles in the home."

Table 6

In any event, this kind of discrepancy between a growing expectation and a lagging behavior can lead to resentment and conflict, which might be managed in various ways, most of which should leave traces in the culture, whether it be in situational comedies, formal debates, or in what we choose to photograph.

* The General Social Survey is on line at" Every one of its questions, or variables, is assigned a MNEMONIC code, which is usually easy to remember and often describes the question well. It only takes a class period to learn how to do simple correlations with what is generally acknowledged to be the most rigorously conducted and exhaustive social survey in the world of a country' beliefs and attitudes.

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After you view the slideshow, answer the following questions:

Do you think men will do more of the housework ten years from now? What societal changes might affect such a change?

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Create your own slideshow:

After you view the slideshow and reflect on it, create your own, related slideshow. To focus your approach, read the paragraph below. Your instructor may ask you to e-mail a link to your slideshow, or you can print it out and hand it in.

Using either family photos, those you find on the web, ones that you take yourself, or some combination of all three, document in a slideshow how housework is allocated in your family or in the society generally. If possible, combine these photographs with testimony from people of different generations about their attitudes toward, and ways of, sharing housework. Be sure to pay attention to whether or not the division of household labor is an issue for those whom you interview. Be attentive to the fact that people who live in the same home may have very different—and perhaps even conflicting—views about the issue and their experience.