Housework—a domestic burden borne disproportionately by women—lies at the heart of many family conflicts. But despite its undeniable impact on family dynamics, housework hasn’t always been regarded as a topic worthy of research. “Everyone does housework, it’s so ordinary, we don’t really care about it, why should we study it?” asks Alexandra Killewald, who recently received her Ph.D. in public policy and sociology from the University of Michigan. “But I think that it’s precisely because these are events that affect so many people that it’s important to understand what’s going on with them, in particular from the perspective of fairness.”
In a paper published in the November 2010 issue of Social Science Research, Killewald takes on two contrasting theories of housework: the autonomy perspective, which predicts that the amount of housework women do will fall steadily as their earnings increase; and the compensatory gender display theory, which says wives’ housework hours will fall until they start earning more than their husbands, at which point the amount of housework they do will increase. The latter theory, Killewald says, may strike people unfamiliar with the literature as absurd: “It’s a particularly interesting theory, because it suggests that more money can make you worse off, which is not how we think money works in any situation.”
Killewald believed both theories fell short, and she set out to provide a more nuanced understanding of housework hours using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. What she found is that the relationship between earnings and housework is not strictly linear. Wives may be happy to bring in a cleaner or eat some meals out, Killewald says, but no matter how much they earn, they are unwilling or unable to delegate all of these chores: some may lack good outsourcing options; others may see home cooking as an essential expression of love. As a result, the autonomy perspective fails to explain wives’ ability—or inability—to buy a pass from housework.
But husbands don’t feel the same responsibility for or emotional connection to housework. “…there is something about the experience of being a wife, as opposed to a husband, that causes even high-earning wives to spend considerably more time in housework than their husbands, even when they out-earn them,” Killewald wrote. It is this gender difference, combined with wives’ inability to outsource all housework, that leads high-earning women to keep making dinner, and that led some researchers to see a compensatory gender reaction, Killewald claims.
Killewald, who grew up in Ann Arbor in a two-career household, has social science in her blood: Her father, political scientist Christopher Achen, was a researcher at ISR’s Center for Political Studies before going to Princeton in 2005. Her mother Tena, a University of Michigan development officer, is now in charge of major gifts for the Eastern States Region. “ISR was the place I had to go drive to pick up my dad from work,” Killewald recalls. With dissertation in hand, Killewald has settled with her physicist husband in the Cambridge area, and is working as a human services researcher at Mathematica Policy Research.
Killewald says her mother has followed her research on housework closely, having had to manage the balance between work and family herself. As for her father? “If my phone rings and it’s my dad, he’s definitely calling about the Michigan football game,” she says drily. “There’s no way he’s talking about social science.”