Personal Finance

Working moms still take on bulk of household chores

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Ms. magazine was first published in 1971, and the 44 intervening years have seen a seismic shift in the workplace, with the share of women working outside the home rising from 53 percent in 1970 to 71 percent in 2012.

But you might not know it from the division of domestic labor, according to a new survey by the Working Mother Research Institute. Seventy-nine percent of working mothers today say they are responsible for doing the laundry, and moms are twice as likely as dads to handle the cooking, according to the survey of more than 1,000 working parents. Working dads do tend to pick up the outdoor chores, and moms and dads share bill-paying responsibilities—but working mothers handle most of the child care.

The burdens are shifting though: Millennial men are more likely to take on housework, including housework and child-care duties women have tended to pick up in the past. But in the aggregate, the burden of household responsibilities in America is still shouldered by mothers.

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Even mothers who are the primary breadwinners for their families take on the bulk of the chores. "Being the family's primary earner doesn't lighten the load for women," the survey concluded.

The differences in workload are apparent in measures of the time men and women spend on household chores. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, women overall spent an average of two hours and 13 minutes on chores daily, compared with one hour and 21 minutes for men in 2013 (the most recent year for which data is available). In households with two full-time working parents, the gap is somewhat smaller: Full-time working mothers spent just under two hours a day on "household activities" while full-time working fathers spent about an hour and 18 minutes on them, according to the BLS.

Even when men and women are not working, their division of labor differs. Men are likely to watch more television when they are out of work, while women will likely spend more time caring for others. Not surprisingly, the American Psychological Association found that women reported higher levels of stress than men.

In addition, the Working Mother study found that several of the chores men tend to pick up, like mowing the lawn, landscaping, car washing, car maintenance and doing the taxes, are among the chores families are most likely to outsource.

There is also a difference in the quality of work men and women take on, according to the survey. Men's chores tend to have a finite endpoint—it is obvious when the garbage cans have been taken out. Women, though, take on the bulk of the planning activities, like children's health care, birthday parties and vacation planning, in addition to chores like cooking and cleaning.

"There is a whole other job that happens with planning out the summer camps, figuring out when we will pay what, and where one kid will be and where the other will be," said Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother and director of the Working Mother Research Institute. "There is this whole other orchestration going on behind the scenes."

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When men leave the bulk of the housework to their spouses, they don't just create tired partners. A study published in 2014 in Psychological Science found that when fathers and mothers share chores more equally, their daughters tend to have broader professional ambitions. (Tweet This)

There are some positive shifts taking place. For example, a Families and Work Institute study found that slightly more working men than working women provided elder care in the last five years. And research by the Georgetown University Law School found that the percentage of workers with flexible schedules more than doubled between 1985 and 2004.

In a broader finding, John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, both professors emeritus and noted time-use experts, found that women were more likely to describe their lives as rushed, but that between 1965 and 1995 the researchers observed "converging androgynous lifestyles of men and women" in terms of how they spent their time.

Perhaps that reflects the generational shifts taking place in who does the chores. The Working Mother research found that some 35 percent of millennial men say they handle the laundry, compared with 23 percent of boomer men, and they are twice as likely as boomer men to plan summer camps for children, take time off work for their medical appointments, and fill out school permission slips.

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Gen X dads fall somewhere between millennials and boomers. Brett Sonnenschein, a production artist at a large retailer and Owens' husband, says that in their home, they "kind of gravitate toward things that we feel better at or more comfortable." He picks up some of the chores that often go to working mothers, like laundry, and as the artist in the family, he also designs the birthday party invitations.

When it comes to planning, though, "she always seems to be the one to take the initiative and make the list," Sonnenschein said. And he still has a hard time when it is his turn to leave work at 5 p.m. to pick up his kids.

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"I would just trade almost anything to not have that hanging over my head those few days. I feel a little bit like I'm letting my co-workers down," he said. Sonnenschein said he comes in early, so he is working as much as everyone else. But when he walks out the door at 5 p.m. to get his kids, he said, "I'm the only one in my group who is doing it."

Given the trends, that may not be the case much longer.