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Sharon Meers's picture

At 2AM last Friday, Roseanne Roseannadanna (1) was keeping me company. My head kept trying to sooth itself with her famous SNL mantra: “If it’s not one thing, it’s another“ followed by her wonderful laundry lists of foul items. Mine: fluids of many sorts -- gallons of liquid from our burst water heater into my son’s room, spare room, walls (leaving the flood refugee sleeping with his parents); then, geysers from my daughter’s stomach sending partially-digested dinner all over the place, all night.

Times like these remind me why negotiating our way to more equality often seems so daunting. Like there’s never a sane moment to stop, consider, discuss how things work with our spouse.

Recent weeks have featured lots of talk about co-ed sharing and why it is or isn’t happening.The New York Times piece pointed to research on today’s couples saying that more sharing yields less divorce (and that female laissez faire gives men more space -- which, in turn, yields more sharing). With overwhelming evidence that more sharing is good for families, it’s amazing to me how hard it is for people to talk about this.

One NYT quote reveals a key reason there’s so much discomfort with this topic: “You can’t just reverse the genders.” Yes, if my husband thought he was going to have to wear a skirt to do his half at home, I don’t think he’d sign up for that. But that’s a canard - do dishes, cooking and laundry really alter how male or female you are?

The Huffington Post said this week that “When the issue is division of labor between dual career couples, often it's all out war.” And the statistics would lead many of us into battle: According to a great new book, Equally Shared Parenting (by Marc and Amy Vachon) women working fulltime still do an average of 28 hours of housework per week versus the 16 men do. The double-duty still seems to apply when women/men split caring for kids -- 13 “she” hours to 7 “he” hours per week (see Getting to 50/50). But from what we learned from our research and book tour is that there are perfectly peaceful ways to get more equal sharing -- and the fear of conflict is what keeps many of us from even looking for them.

In The Economist last week, Stanford professor Londa Schiebinger makes clear how burdening 50% of our most talented people with 2x the housework is a big economic tax. Apparently even women scientists fall prey to the 2-to-1 rule, through using their heads (triage and outsourcing about 15% of the labor) they report doing 10 hours of housework (versus 5 hours of housework for the average male scientist).

From the data I’ve seen, women scientists have the lowest absolute gender gap on hours of housework versus their male peers, a mere 5 hours per week. What would it take for that gap to go to zero? A few hypotheses:

1) Real Men are Real Dads. What if all us women did a great job communicating that belief to the men around us? Social science data says only 20% of men still believe in “women’s work,” that men and women were really meant to play dramatically different roles. What if we help the other 80% of fair-minded-enough men find strength in their actual numbers? Some of the best parenting advice our family gets is man-to-man: Successful guys with busy careers who trade information about raising kids -- while clearing up the kitchen with their wives. It does take some social engineering -- a good first step is for women to know in our bones that equality is really very good for men (for the research on this, see Why Guys Love 50/50).

2) Guys Can Multitask. What if women dropped the negative (but funny!) banter about how supposedly unable men were to do their parts at home? What if we looked at the data that says men are naturally able enough to do a great job with kids and home and leave it at that?

3) No One Wants a Boss At Home. What happens in households where men get equal say what’s on the to-do list and when it gets done? Marriage experts say that when wives are open to the male innovations in family management (vacuuming once a week, not twice?) men are far more likely to do their part.

4) Typecasting is Good for No One. If you have no assumptions, is it easier to run a happy home? Couples who freed themselves from the “girls do this, boys do that” mentality had an easier time planning ahead about what work was to be done and who was going to do it. They had to. If you can’t assume mom stays home when kids are sick, if you can’t assume that dad is responsible for earning more money to buy the new car this year, you have to do a lot more thinking ahead.

Families do generate endless curveballs that are hard to anticipate. And mortal working parents like me don’t get it just right very often. But the practice of looking ahead and figuring out what’s manageable for mom/dad means that when you need to say “I need your help,” you have a better shot of using a calm, friendly voice.

What if more of us tried harder to test these hypotheses? It’s often 60/40 or 90/10 and it’s unlikely that the gap in male/female household labor will really be zero for a while. The point is that mis-allocated household labor should not be the reason women have to bow out of jobs they train hard to get. It shouldn’t be the reason that men get stuck fearing their bosses if they go home for dinner with their kids. 50/50 is a mindset that says women need their jobs and men need their kids - that moving toward more common ground will bring us a lot more peace.

Our family was still fighting soggy carpets and the threat of mold when my daughter's bug migrated to my stomach -- as Ms. Roseannadanna said, “its always something.” And, having just written the above, in the nicest voice I could muster, I asked husband to take our kids to school so I could sleep another hour and make it to the office looking less green.

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