One of the many barriers to true gender equality in the Western world is the so-called "housework gap" between men and women. This gap is a sad reflection of the fact that, in many homes, women are still expected to take on more household chores than men, despite working full-time jobs. Not only does this "second shift" interfere with many women's work and personal lives, but it negatively impacts their physical health, too.
The more men and women can share the burden of housework—especially when both partners work—the better it is for gender equality as a whole.
With this in mind, researchers from the University of Oxford decided to investigate how the housework gap has changed in a range of countries over the last 50 years. They wanted to know how far we've come, and how far we still have to go.
To do this, they examined housework data collected from 1961 to 2011 in 19 different countries, using the Multinational Time Use Study (MTUS), an international archive of cross-national time-use surveys. Data was used from the United States, Canada, Western and Eastern Europe, Australia, and Israel. The team ran the data in several ways, including one which included controls for variables such as age, educational attainment, employment, marital status, number of children under age 18, and the presence of a child under age of five.
First, the good news: The housework gap between men and women has declined since 1961. As the authors write, "Women’s core housework continues to decrease, and men’s to increase—although less steeply than the decrease for women." So women are doing less and men are doing a little more.
The bad news, however, is the gap itself is still quite large, with women throughout the Western world continuing to do way more housework than men. As the authors explain:
[The data] show that being a woman is, on average, associated with more than two hours of extra housework per day. When we add the controlling factors into the model, the coefficient of being a woman falls by only ten minutes.
So how does the U.S. stack up in all of this? Turns out we're actually closing the gap more than most other countries. If you take a look at the graph below, you can see that America, in bright blue, has narrowed the housework gap quite significantly since the 1960s, along with countries including Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland—because, duh, Scandinavia is the best at everything.
Interestingly, in the U.S., the housework gap hit an all-time low in the 1990s but began increasing again in the 2000s. It has since leveled off. "This recent movement in the U.S. in the direction of greater inequality has been referred to as evidence for a stall in gender convergence," write the authors.
Meanwhile, the countries with the worst gender housework gaps were Spain and Italy—two countries known for their machismo culture—along with countries from the former-Soviet bloc, including Poland and Yugoslavia / Slovenia.
The authors concluded that the countries they examined fell into one of two categories: The first includes countries that saw a steep decline in the housework gap starting in the 1960s that leveled off around the 1980s and has now slowed significantly—or stalled, like this country. The second includes countries like Italy and Spain, which saw very little decline in the beginning but are just now seeing steeper declines. The authors write:
The evidence suggests a slowing of gender convergence from the late 1980s in those countries where men and women’s time in housework is more equal, whereas in those countries where the gender division of housework is relatively unequal there is greater gender convergence in the later part of the period studied.
One problem here is that the increase in men's housework is moving at a slower pace than the decrease in women's housework. So women might do less, but this doesn't mean men are stepping up to do more.
"There is less change in the overall trajectory of men’s housework time, which displays less variation between countries than in the case of women," explain the authors. "As has often been suggested, this slow-down supports the idea that there may be limits to the equality in housework that can be achieved under current social policy, management culture, and gender ideology constraints."
That's right: We may have hit a wall—and unless we proactively change things, the gap will never fully close. As the authors point out, in Nordic countries where social policies and gender ideologies support a more egalitarian society, the housework gap continues to decline.
So while the U.S. may have come a long way, we still have a long way to go.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.