A solution to working couples' 'chore wars'?

Learning your value
Learning your value   

Women may be leaning in and climbing corporate ladders, but on the homefront, couples often still divide chores like it's 1965.

Well, some couples, anyway.

It turns out that same-sex couples are much less likely to use traditional standards for allocating chores. A newly released survey by the Families and Work Institute of 225 dual-earner couples found that, for the most part, same-sex couples used "a lot of mixing and matching" to divvy up household duties, said Kenneth Matos, the institute's senior director of research.

While that doesn't mean they share all responsibilities, there are lessons straight couples might learn from the process many same-sex couples use to divvy up household tasks.

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Overall, the study found that same-sex couples tend to share more duties and assign various chores based on personal preference, while straight couples tend to slip back into traditional gender roles, with women, lower earners, and those with fewer work hours, taking primary responsibility for stereotypical female chores.

While the survey, which included 103 same-sex couples and 122 straight couples, found that same-sex couples did not have an "overabundance" of shared responsibilities, it found a greater proportion of same-sex couples do share the laundry, household repair and child care responsibilities than dual-income straight couples do.

In fact, same-sex couples were much more likely to share child care duties, the study found. About 74 percent of the same-sex couples shared routine child care and 62 percent shared sick child care, versus 38 percent of straight couples sharing routine child care and just 32 percent sharing the care of sick children. (Tweet this)

Part of the difference may stem from the fact that same-sex couples have already broken out of the normative family structure, said Matos. Male-female couples "sort of have a template," he said. "There is a lot of going ... really fast into the traditional gender roles and then saying, 'Wait a second, this isn't really where I want to be.' " Same-sex couples, in contrast, have already broken a mold, so they can have "a richness of imagination" when they divide domestic chores.

Same sex couple with child
Patryce Bak | Getty Images

But does sharing housework and child care more equally automatically make couples happier? Not necessarily, the study found. What really tamped down the chore wars was communication.

When couples discussed what each one wants in terms of labor division, their overall happiness went up markedly, and when they did not, they were much more likely to be dissatisfied with their domestic workload.

"I probably went in with the bias that sharing is going to be better," said Jennifer Allyn, diversity strategy leader at PwC, which sponsored the study. "It was insightful to see that the 50-50 model doesn't have to be where you get to. It's just that you have to talk about it and be purposeful and intentional about it."

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Both men and women sometimes suffer their chores in silence, and the survey found no meaningful difference in the share of same-sex and different-sex couples who discussed how to divide housework when they first moved in together. But women in both same-sex and straight couples are much more likely to feel they wanted to discuss who did what but did not have the opportunity.

Some 20 percent of women in different-sex couples and 15 percent of women in same-sex couples felt they didn't get to speak their piece about the division of labor, compared with 11 percent of men in either a same-sex or different-sex couple.

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Same-sex couples still represent a small portion of all couples natiowide. There are an estimated 390,000 married same-sex couples in the country, according to the latest Gallup survey data, out of a total of more than 56 million married couples living in the U.S.

But the increasing visibility of same-sex couples, and the choices they make when it comes to chores, could point more straight couples toward new ways of divvying up household responsibilities, Allyn said.

"There is a lot of freedom to [split] it lots of different ways, and there are lots of chores," she said. "What feels fair in the context of our relationship? I think that's going to be more individual."

PwC recently took a step toward making those choices possible for its employees by revising its leave policies when employees have babies or adopt. Instead of giving mothers more time than fathers, it renamed the benefit "parental leave" and now gives all parents the right to the same amount of paid time off.

As to who changes the diapers of those new babies, PwC is mum. That, after all, has to be talked through.