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Amy Joyce: Life at Work

Household Chores Conform to Stereotype

In the Work-Family Balancing Act, Women Still Do Most of the Juggling

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 19, 2004; Page F05

Does this sound familiar to any of you women out there? You work all day, go home, cook dinner. Then you take out the trash and dust while your darling husband watches television.

No, it's not a scene from the 1950s (or my house, thank goodness). It's today, according to statistics released by the Department of Labor this week. The study revealed (wait for it) working women spend about an hour more doing household chores and caring for family members than their male counterparts.

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Still stuck in typical gender roles, 84 percent of women and 63 percent of men spent some time doing household activities such as cooking, cleaning or lawn care. And on an average day in 2003, when the study was conducted, 20 percent of men reported doing housework while 55 percent of women did.

The stereotypical punches keep coming: Men spent more time doing leisure activities (5.4 hours) than women (4.8 hours). And working women with children under age 6 spent 3.3 hours a day on leisure and sports activities, while working men with children under age 6 spent 3.8 hours on leisure and sports.

The American Time Use Survey will be an annual report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The cost of the program is $4.5 million. The aim of the study is to find out how people fit work into the rest of their lives. "We're trying to get at the difference of how people balance family and work life," said Dori Allard, an economist with the survey program.

Although the study did not make recommendations or suggest that men help out more at home , Allard said she hopes the statistics will be used by researchers and professors who might apply the numbers to larger issues. The data are available to the public, and the staff collected unpublished statistics that can be looked up upon request.

The 21,000 people interviewed for the study reported their activities from 4 a.m. the day before the interview to 4 a.m. on the day of the interview.

Lest you think men are complete slackers, the story at the office was a bit different. Men were found to work about an hour more than employed women. That difference reflects, partly, that more women work part time. About 19 percent of employed people interviewed said they did some or all of their work at home.

Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, formerly the Women's Legal Defense Fund, said she did not find any of the statistics surprising. And she hopes the study will help shape the workplace so families can better balance their lives. "It showed how tough it is for families to balance work and family," she said. "It shows how we have to get our workplaces and society in general to catch up with the fact . . . that all adults are working."

However, she pointed out, the stress of taking care of family still tends to fall on women, even as more and more women stay in the workforce after giving birth.

Because it was the first study of its kind, there were no historical statistics to show whether things are getting better for families, or worse. But anecdotally, "more men are doing more household and family caregiving than they used to," Ness said. "But we still have a ways to go."

However, "we" don't have as far to go as families -- and companies -- had to go in 1984. That is when the National Partnership for Women & Families introduced the Family and Medical Leave Act, designed to provide time off for women who gave birth. But because it was not maternity-specific, it also provided time for fathers to stay at home with sick family members or new babies. Although that was not a common practice at first, it is an important aspect of the act now.

"I think it's fabulous they're doing it, and it will help us understand better what kind of public policy . . . and workplace policy we need," Ness said. "And it will drive home what stereotypical discrimination we have in the workplace."

But, she added, the numbers don't show how many men would like to spend more time at home, doing chores or taking care of children. And she expects that there are many. If we could look behind those numbers, we might not see that working women are forced to take care of children more often than their working husbands, but that society, and the workplace, dictate it.

That, she added, might show up if we look into the numbers more closely. If only companies could be a little more flexible for everyone, the Homer Simpsons might disappear.

Join Amy Joyce from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday at www.washingtonpost.com to discuss your life at work.

A question for readers: What awful, silly things have your electronic systems (your BlackBerry, e-mail or Instant Messaging, for example) done to you to mess up your work life? E-mail me at lifeatwork@washpost.com. We'll publish the "oh my" tales in a future column.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company