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Mothers who earn more also tend to take on more household duties, study finds

Experts say some couples may be leaning into 'traditional' gender roles

Cleaning floor concept
Photo (c) Virojt Changyencham - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Bath explored how consumers divide household chores between mothers and fathers. Their findings showed that married mothers who have higher salaries than their husbands are also more likely to take on more of the household responsibilities. 

“Of course, we understand why specialized division of labor exists, but there is no reason for this specialization to be gender-specific,” said researcher Dr. Joanna Syrda. “Traditional division has been conventionally explained by men earning more and working longer hours and has a certain logical appeal. 

“However, I found that the gender housework gap actually gets bigger for mothers who earned more than their spouses – the more they earned over their partner, the more housework they did."

Income impacts household duties

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from 1999 through 2017. This included long-term information on more than 6,600 couples across the U.S. 

While society has moved past some traditional gender norms, the researchers identified an interesting trend among heterosexual couples when it comes to income and household chores. Married mothers who made more money than their husbands were also more likely to take on the bulk of household responsibilities. 

“Married couples that fail to replicate the traditional division of income may be perceived – both by themselves and others – to be deviating from the norm,” Dr. Syrda. “What may be happening is that, when men earn less than women, couples neutralize this by increasing traditionality through housework – in other words, wives do more and husbands do less as they try to offset this ‘abnormal’ situation by leaning into other conventional gender norms.” 

The researchers learned that this trend wasn’t as strong among unmarried partners who lived in the same house compared to those who were married. Moving forward, the team hopes these findings can help couples understand their dynamics and hopefully prevent future conflicts. 

“This is important, because how couples divide the increased domestic workload after becoming parents will be an important determinant of earnings inequalities between women and men over the course of their lives – a pattern once settled upon is often difficult to renegotiate,” Dr. Syrda said. “And these norms may be passed to their children.” 

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