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Men, women often divide child care and house care tasks by attitudes rather than expectations, researcher says

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: A study by Dr. April Bleske-Rechek and her student research team looks at whether the often talked about disparity in how women and men divide child care and home care tasks is influenced by their own preferences, rather than by entrenched expectations around gender roles. Their findings have recently been highlighted in professional journals.

Countless stories have been written in recent years about research that finds that women — including those in dual-income households — continue to spend more time than their spouses caring for their children and cleaning their houses, while men spend more time at their formal jobs.

What’s not talked about is how men and women feel about that division of labor, says Dr. April Bleske-Rechek, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

“Story after story talk in generalities and broad strokes about women continuing to invest more time in child care and house care but none of them considers the possibility that men and women may differ in how they want to spend their time,” Bleske-Rechek says. “They also never talk about the massive array of tasks involved in household maintenance and child care.”

So, Bleske-Rechek and her team of undergraduate student researchers launched their own study to see if the disparities in how couples divide labor may reflect differences between men’s and women’s attitudes toward dozens of typical child care and home maintenance tasks.

Their research findings, published in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and recently highlighted by the Institute for Family Studies, support their hypothesis that the often-discussed disparities in how men and women engage in home and child care tasks don’t necessarily reflect entrenched, traditional gender roles, but rather that many men and women are doing the tasks that they prefer, Bleske-Rechek says.

People often assume that men spend more time in their formal jobs and women spend more time on household and child care tasks because women are oppressed, Bleske-Rechek says. Their research suggests, however, that tasks often are divided by an individual’s interest in doing them, regardless of gender.

For example, she says, many men in their study reported that they like to fix things around the house and maintain the vehicles, while most women in their study reported no interest in doing those sorts of tasks. On the flip side, many women did report that they like to shop for gifts or decorate the house, while men reported not enjoying those tasks and preferring their spouse do them, she says.

“This research is important because it addresses a gap in discussions regarding sex differences in housework and child care — men’s and women’s attitudes,” Bleske-Rechek says. “Stories sometime describe women as ‘shouldering’ most of the caregiving and household duties, which implies that women view these tasks as a burden. They don’t consider the possibility that some men and women might truly enjoy or take pride in some of these tasks.”

UW-Eau Claire research findings

In the study, Bleske-Rechek’s research team surveyed two groups of men and women: college-going emerging adults between the ages of 18 and 23, none of whom yet had children; and middle-aged adults between the ages of 31 and 46, most of whom were partnered and raising one or more young children. Those surveyed all were current UW-Eau Claire students or graduates of the university.

In the survey, the researchers asked emerging-aged adults to rate how much they expected to enjoy 40 specific child care tasks and 58 specific household tasks. They asked middle-aged adults to rate their current attitude toward each of those same tasks. Participants in both groups also reported how they would ideally split the responsibility for each task with their partner.

“In the aggregate, women reported enjoying child care tasks more than men did,” Bleske-Rechek says of their findings. “In fact, although both sexes provided favorable ratings to most child care tasks, there was not a single child care task that men liked or foresaw liking more than women did.”

Women in both age groups said they preferred having more responsibility for scheduling and coordinating children’s events and appointments, and for shopping for children’s needs and wants. Men in both groups preferred that their partner have more responsibility in those areas, the study found.

The men in the study reported that they enjoy household tasks that involve physical work with objects, including outdoor labor and home fixes and maintenance, far more than women did. In fact, women tended to dislike tasks involving outdoor labor and home fixes and maintenance, Bleske-Rechek says.

“While women wanted their partners to have responsibility for those tasks, men themselves also preferred to have more responsibility for those tasks,” Bleske-Rechek says.

In addition to child care, women said they also preferred tasks associated with food preparation, family scheduling and organizing, and home aesthetics much more than men did. Even though men did not necessarily dislike those tasks, men tended to prefer that their partner have more responsibility for them, she says.

For some tasks, the differences in how men and women viewed them was quite pronounced, says Bleske-Rechek. However, differences in preferences for how tasks were split were more pronounced in the middle-aged adult sample. That might be because they now understand the reality of what it takes to raise children and manage a household, she says.

Bleske-Rechek also noted that their findings fit with other research, including published work out of her lab several years ago, showing that men and women differ in how much they would like to work outside the home when they have young children.

“All of these findings show that men and women do not hold identical attitudes about their role in the house, nor in various tasks involved in managing a home and raising children,” says Bleske-Rechek. “We found that regardless of their sex, individuals tended to want more responsibility for the tasks they enjoyed and, unsurprisingly, less responsibility for those they did not enjoy.”

There are many exceptions to any trend, so there certainly are men who prefer to spend more time on child care and tasks such as laundry, while their partner prefers to spend more time on her formal job, Bleske-Rechek says. She noted that in her own family, for example, her husband stayed at home with their kids for 10 years, while she — happily — did not. What matters, she says, is recognizing that many couples divide their tasks by considering what they like or don’t like doing, what they value and what they’re good at doing, not because society places expectations on them to do certain things.

“In the modern world, where men and women alike should be able to choose freely, perhaps the best thing partners can do is to talk about their likes and dislikes — and recognize that striving for equity by sharing every single task equally is unlikely to make either of them happy in the end,” Bleske-Rechek says.

Undergraduate student researchers

Bleske-Rechek says she could not have completed the research without the help of undergraduate students in the Individual Differences and Evolutionary Psychology Lab that she directs at UW-Eau Claire.

Michaela Gunseor, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2018 with degrees in business administration and psychology, liberal arts, was an especially valuable member of her team.

“Michaela was with me for four years and was a phenomenal student researcher,” Bleske-Rechek says. “She put lots of time and thought into this study. I couldn’t have done it without her.”

Gunseor says being part of the research lab helped shape her college experience and her plans for her future.

“Looking back on my years at UWEC, researching with Dr. Bleske-Rechek was easily the most impactful part of my college experience,” Gunseor says. “The way that she involves students in each part of the research process while also coaching and encouraging them to bring their voice and contributions to the research taught me critical thinking, collaboration and innovation while also igniting my passion for data and building my confidence. This foundation gave me something unique that I was able to bring to both my graduate program and now my career.”

Their research on men’s and women’s attitudes toward family roles and household and child care tasks was especially meaningful because it is the largest and most complex research that she has been involved with to date, Gunseor says.

Being involved with research that involved current students, but also middle-aged adults made the project even more interesting because it created new challenges and learning opportunities, Gunseor says.

“Because we didn’t have direct access to a participant pool of middle-aged adults, getting participation from this age group created new complexities with applying for funding, budgeting, calculating material cost and coordinating a large physical mailing — all things that I was unfamiliar with,” Gunseor says. “Dr. Bleske-Rechek encouraged me to lead the way through these complexities, while always being ready and willing to support if needed. I developed substantially from this experience because I was challenged to manage ambiguity, leap headfirst into the unknown, put forth something for everyone to react to, fail fast and be lifted by my mentor. Today, I am using that same approach in my career and my life.”

Gunseor says she hopes that their research findings will help people strengthen their own relationships and intentionally approach others with more consideration for their beliefs and attitudes.

“Additionally, I hope that individuals will discover or strengthen the childhood affinity for asking ‘why’ and approach the world with more curiosity than judgment,” Gunseor says.