Why Your Son Should Do The Dishes

Girls still do more housework than boys and get paid less to do it, says Soraya Chemaly. See how that affects everyone later in life.

The first act of open feminist rebellion that I can remember engaging in was refusing to get up and clear the table with my mother while my brother sat and watched. I just would not do it. My father laughed at first. He thought it was kind of cute, I imagine. Then he got angry. But I knew I was safe and sat still. Then he tried to get my mother to make me get up. And she didn’t. Then he made my brother get up.

I was 8, he was 6. Had our ages been reversed, it might have been much more difficult for me to sit in my seat and refuse to get up until he did, too.

Turns out, my experience is still fairly common. Last week, I wrote about how persistent, international wage and leisure gaps between men and women start with gendered ideas about how chores are divided and rewarded in the home. Essentially, girls spend more time doing chores (so, less leisure time) and boys’ labor is more highly valued and compensated. This is consistent over many years worth of research and buttresses economic theories about visible and invisible labor.  

This information, which speaks to a fundamental unfairness, makes many people uncomfortable and unhappy. Sometimes, they refuse to believe it because “I did as much work as my sister,” or they insist that “boys’ work is just harder and they should be paid more,” or they have themselves experienced childhood disparities that reflect this research and the unfairness of it and sibling rivalry it encourages still pisses them off.

While I was writing about this topic, however, there was one set of recent research that really captured my attention: There is an interesting and demonstrable link between chore assignments and political attitudes later in life. Specifically, the work that girls do at home is very likely to affect their brothers’ beliefs about gender and politics for life. 

Earlier this year, researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Loyola Marymount University released a paper, Childhood Socialization and Political Attitudes: Evidence from a Natural Experiment. Lead researchers Neil Malhotra and Andrew Healy concluded, among other things, that “having sisters rather than brothers makes young men—but not young women—more likely to express conservative positions on gender roles and to identify as Republicans.” 

Malhotra and Healy were rigorous in their approach, which included analysis of large scale, longitudinal data sets, and they were careful to include measures related to birth order, overall gender composition of families, and considerations of whether families with girls “went for a boy.” What this research did was delve into the devilish details of what transmits beliefs and the effect that “inconsequential” day-to-day activities, like who does the dishes, has on children. 

So, who does do the dishes?  

Turn out girls still do more than boys, still. The researchers found that 60% of boys, compared to 82.2% of girls are tasked with this chore. When these girls have brothers, those brothers tend to grow up significantly more likely to think of housework as “women’s work.” For girls, having sisters has no effect. Women who have sisters are no more or less conservative than women with brothers. And for boys with brothers, likewise. In those household’s “feminized” work is done by everyone.

However, when boys have sisters, especially younger sisters, there exists a much higher likelihood of labor in the home being divided along traditionally gendered lines. Boys who grow up with traditional, gender-stereotyped ideas about divisions of labor have a significantly higher likelihood of being conservative adults (who, by the way, are also more likely to vote for women who are considered stereotypically “pretty”).

How much more significantly? In early adulthood, marked. By high school, boys with sisters are 15% more likely to identify as Republicans. This difference has grown less pronounced during the past three decades. A partisanship gap was heightened in earlier data sets, during an era when egalitarian gender roles were less acceptable. However, men with all sisters are still 17% more likely to say that their spouse does more housework.

Intuitively, it makes sense that people with traditional ideas about gender roles are politically conservative; indeed they are 25% more likely to be politically conservative. It’s how, for example, we end up with politicians who say things like money is “more important for men,” and others who accidentally say things like “binders full of women,” and not understand why it’s problematic. It’s why the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and the renewed Equal Rights Amendment, were introduced by progressive Democrats (with a stack of undone dishes at home) and bitterly fought.

When kids are young it may not seem like such a big deal that boys’ jobs pay more and that they may also, indeed, save more as a result. But, what is the butterfly effect of these ideas? What does the wage gap cost? How much more could a woman afford during the course of a year if the wage gap were closed? According to The National Partnership for Women and Families, The American Association of University Women and the U.S. Department of Labor:

  • 95 more weeks of food
  • Half a year’s worth of utilities and mortgage payments
  • More than 3,000 gallons of gasoline
  • Almost a year’s worth, eleven extra months, of rent
  • Close to three additional years of health insurance premiums for a woman’s family.

Add to that saving for retirement, accrual of benefits, and lifetime savings potential. For an equivalent, interactive map analysis for your state, go here. But, hey, I bet lots of girls in Virginia can produce squeaky clean dishes at the end of the day. 

Ideas about “women’s work” are serious, because women’s long term economic and financial security is cobbled by a persistent wage gap driven by sex segregation in the workforce and attitudes about what and whose labor we value more. Gender should not be the organizing principle for allocating time, money, value, prestige, power, and resources—for neither children nor adults.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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