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IS THAT FAIR?

McKinsey says same-gender couples are better at dividing up housework

A same sex couple holds hands.
Reuters/Max Rossi
A gay couple hold hands during their symbolic wedding ceremony in central Rome May 21, 2005. Gay couples from around Italy were informally married in…
  • Cassie Werber
By Cassie Werber

Cassie writes about the world of work.

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Who cleans the toilet in your household? Does one person always mow the lawn? Who is in charge of the accounts?

In partnered households, a division of labor makes sense. But that doesn’t make it easy: Conversations about money can be fraught and housework—or the lack of it—tend to cause some of the worst relationship disputes.

All too often, tasks break down along gender-normative lines, meaning that among opposite-gender couples, women do more unpaid labor than men. If that couple has children, the divide becomes starker—even if both parties are also trying to forge ahead with a career.

But dual-career couples of the same gender tend to split life chores more equally, according to researchers at McKinsey. What’s more, the strategies employed by same-gender couples might be applicable more broadly to all couples trying to make career and home life equitable.

How to divide household chores in a relationship

In opposite-gender, dual-career couples, women are twice as likely as men to see their partner’s career take priority over their own, McKinsey wrote in its report, released Monday. Women also do more housework. They might work an equal number of paid hours as their male spouse, but then also often take on a second shift of daily unpaid labor at home. The pandemic exacerbated this, with mothers also taking on more of the child care, care arrangements, and homeschooling during work hours.

Women and men also perceive the amount of work they’re doing quite differently: 70% of men in working couples say they do as many household chores as their female partners, but only 42% of women agree, McKinsey found.

McKinsey examined data from over 30,000 people in opposite-gender couples and over 900 people in same-gender couples, both with and without children, selected from the 65,000 employees surveyed for its 2021 Women in the Workplace survey. They also interviewed 25 couples to gain more insight into the quantitative findings. They found that while 53% of women in opposite-gender couples said they did “all or most” of the housework, only about a quarter of women in same-gender partnerships said so. Same-gender partners were significantly less likely to feel one person had to “downshift” their career after having children.

Household chores and career goals

Same-gender couples appear to value both careers, beyond how much money they brought in, the researchers noted. Same-gender couples’ “approach to household responsibilities often reflects a deep, abiding assumption each partner’s career is equally important—irrespective of who’s the breadwinner,” the authors wrote.

The reason most often given by women for their careers taking a backseat after they have children is that their male partner already makes more money, so his career needs to be prioritized, which is how motherhood exacerbates existing structural inequalities. But the McKinsey research suggests that the rationale isn’t just economic, it’s based on societal expectation as well.

Opposite-gender couples could learn some lessons from how the same-gender couples—who arguably have fewer stereotypical roles to fall back into—divided up tasks.

One suggestion in the report is to divide tasks by inclination. Not many people love scrubbing sinks, but if you prefer that to researching home insurance while your partner doesn’t mind that kind of work, use that to drive who does what.

Another suggestion is to outsource certain tasks, if a couple’s finances make it possible. In same-gender relationships, there may be less expectation that a woman should do childcare, or a man de-ice the driveway, so both partners are more likely to get outside help for jobs they don’t want to do themselves, the authors said.

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