When it comes to dividing the labor at home fairly, straight couples may have a lot to learn from gay couples.
A new study finds that same-sex couples tend to communicate better, share chore duties more fairly and assign tasks based on personal preference -- rather than gender, income, hours worked or power position in the relationship.
Straight couples, meanwhile, tend to talk less and fall into to traditional gender roles, what one family describes as “pink chores” and “blue chores.”
In dual-income straight couples, women and those who earn less money or work fewer hours tend to take primary responsibility for stereotypically female -- and more labor-intensive -- chores such as child care, grocery shopping, washing dishes, cooking and laundry, according to a survey of 225 gay and straight dual-income couples being released Thursday by PriceWaterHouseCoopers and the Families and Work Institute.
The survey, while a relatively small sample, has interesting findings.
Men, higher earners and those who work longer hours – which researchers say can signify a position of power -- in straight couples tend to do the yard work and outdoor, auto and more traditionally male chores that tend to be less time-consuming.
Yet in same-sex couples, income and work hours didn’t have the same affect. And, perhaps most important, same-sex couples were much more likely to share equally the time-consuming work of routine child care – 74 percent of gay couples versus 38 percent of straight couples. And gay couples were more likely to equally share the unpredictable work of caring for a sick child – 62 percent versus 32 percent for straight couples.
Why is that important? In straight couples, women are still often considered the primary, or default, parent, responsible not only for organizing, overseeing and caring for children but for also doing many of household chores. Time diary data shows that women, even when they work full-time, tend to spend about twice as much time doing housework and caring for children.
“There’s been a lot of calls for more sharing of child care responsibilities, so it isn’t only a woman’s problem and she isn’t the only one dealing with the fallout at work. But we see more sharing in same-sex couples,” said Ken Matos, FWI senior director of research and author of the study. “Taking on primary child care responsibility impacts one’s work time. It creates so many unscheduled interruptions, so that’s an important thing to be shared.”
The survey also found that men in same-sex relationships were more satisfied with the division of labor than were women in straight relationships. The reason? Same-sex couples talked about it more.
Men in gay partnerships were much more likely to say they had discussed how to divide the labor when they first moved in together. Women in straight partnerships were much more likely to say they wanted to, but didn’t.
“The people who said they bit their tongue had a lower satisfaction with division of household responsibilities,” Matos said. “So satisfaction may not be so much about what you do, but whether or not you felt you had a voice. Did you say what you wanted? Or did you let it evolve and feel like you couldn’t pull yourself out of the situation once it settled and got stuck?”
In the survey, 20 percent of women in straight couples said they hadn’t spoken up about how to divide the labor fairly, but wish they had. In same-sex couples, 15 percent of the women had.
“Perhaps because they can’t default to gender, people in same-sex couples are in more of a position to have these conversations,” Matos said. “That’s probably the biggest takeaway of the survey: how important it is to talk and say what you want, rather than stay silent, not wanting to start a fight, making assumptions, and then letting things fester.”
Writer and lecturer Andrew Solomon said he and his husband are constantly talking about how to make all the pieces of their lives fit together. “I feel like we’re constantly inventing it,” he said. “We talk about it all the time. It’s a constantly evolving process.”
Solomon is the primary breadwinner and his spouse has taken on the bulk of caring for their six-year-old son. Everything else, Solomon said, they’ve divided chores based on what they’re good at. Solomon is organized, so he arranges school and summer camp activities. His husband cooks. They share school drop off and they shift duties as the demands of their schedules change.
“People often make assumptions: We get asked, since I'm the one who works more, am I more the ‘Dad,’ and is John really the ‘Mom?’I feel like we have a paucity of vocabulary to describe these roles,” Solomon said. “If there’s one thing same sex parents could teach is that it’s not that one of us is ‘really’ the mom and one is ‘really the Dad. Those are irrelevant concepts. We’re just both in this together.”