Economics 101

Division of Labor at Home: Forget Gender Roles and Egalitarianism

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During one of our marriage prep classes, my husband and I received a “marital responsibilities chart” with various tasks from managing finances to folding laundry.

The teacher asked the couples to discuss who would be responsible for what during marriage.

We found our expectations for each other were largely based on our families of origin, and my parents modeled generally traditional roles for me.

However, today the traditional housewife and bread-winning husband have yielded to the ever-popular “egalitarian marriage,” in which husbands and wives split the housework 50/50.

Some studies show egalitarian marriages are happier and others show traditional is the way to go, but I thought there must be a better, third way to decide whether or not my soon-to-be husband should be in charge of vacuuming.

Here are some of the thoughts that popped up in my mind as I thought about a possible third option:

  • It’s not about gender roles: Men and women have different strengths, weaknesses, and interests. Men are generally stronger physically, which gives them an advantage in more strenuous tasks, and women are often better multi-taskers, which is helpful in juggling childcare activities. But there will always be exceptions to the rule. Not every man will be a handyman and not every women will cook like Betty Draper. Throwing out traditional gender roles in marriage allows a couple to celebrate their individual uniqueness instead of expecting each other to live up to an unrealistic ideal.
  • It’s not about equality: An equal 50/50 relationship stifles the unique individuality of each partner by minimizing differences instead of capitalizing on them. Not only might this cause interpersonal tension in a “keeping score” mentality, but it can be incredibly inefficient to the productivity of the household.
  • It’s about comparative advantage: IFWE economist Dr. Anne Bradley says the secret to dividing labor in the home is focusing on who is relatively better at what tasks:

[My husband] and I have found that egalitarian arrangements don’t work for us, because it becomes a matter of keeping score and trying to make sure everything is equal. When you are talking about vacuuming versus picking up the dry cleaning, how do you know what equal means? We couldn’t figure that out so for us, leaning into what we do relatively better and being committed to the fact that keeping a house and raising children is a team effort, has made us much more productive and reduced the “keeping score” mentality.

In divvying up household chores by each partner’s comparative advantage or who is relatively better at which tasks, we get a small picture of the way the global economy operates.

How can you implement comparative advantage in your home?

  • Have an honest conversation about what you like and don’t like. Do certain tasks feel more rewarding than others? With which tasks do you tend to procrastinate? Talk to your partner about chores you enjoy more than others and which ones you tend to slack on. Discuss how your strengths and weaknesses might best complement each other.
  • Establish ownership. Make a list and assign one individual full ownership of each chore based on comparative advantage. While switching off on more regular tasks like cooking dinner can work if day-to-day expectations are clear, simply “sharing” an activity is more likely to lead to score keeping and mental tallies.
  • Test it and iron out the kinks. Put your plan in action. You will probably find it doesn’t work out perfectly, but through this you learn. Maybe you discover there are in fact jobs neither of you like or are particularly good at. Consider rotating these chores between the two of you or even outsourcing to a third party service if your budget allows.
  • Show grace and gratitude. Use your plan as a guide, not a commandment. Step in to help your spouse if he or she forgets to do a chore or simply needs a break. Remember to also verbalize your appreciation for the work your spouse does. An attitude of grace and gratitude will be the glue that holds together the effectiveness of your teamwork.

In marriage and in the global economy, celebrating uniqueness through comparative advantage is the secret to true complementarian teamwork. What role does comparative advantage play in your home?

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