In families with children in which both spouses work fulltime, women do about twice as much child care and housework as men – the notorious ‘second shift’ described by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her classic book of that name.2 You might think that, even if this isn’t quite fair, it’s nonetheless rational. When one person earns more than the other then he (most likely) enjoys greater bargaining power at the trade union negotiations that, for some, become their marriage. Certainly, in line with this unromantic logic, as a woman’s financial contribution approaches that of her husband’s, her housework decreases. It doesn’t actually become equitable, you understand. Just less unequal. But only up to the point at which her earnings equal his. After that – when she starts to earn more than him – something very curious starts to happen. The more she earns, the more housework she does.3 In what sociologist Sampson Lee Blair has described as the ‘sadly comic data’ from his research, ‘where she has a job and he doesn’t … even then you find the wife doing the majority of the housework.’
… If you are somehow sceptical of the notion that high-earning women do more housework because of an internal drive to maintain the highest possible oxytocin levels, while unemployed husbands carefully protect their own physiological state by giving the laundry pile a wide berth, or are simply neurally less capable of sensing it, then sociologists have an alternative explanation that you may find more satisfying. They refer to this curious phenomenon as ‘gender deviance neutralisation’.7 Spouses work together to counteract the discomfort created when a woman breaks the traditional marital contract by taking on the primary breadwinning role. A fascinating interview study conducted by sociologist Veronica Tichenor revealed the psychological work that both husbands and their higher-earning wives perform to continue to ‘do gender’ more conventionally within their marriage, despite their unconventional situations. For example, as predicted by the quantitative surveys, most of the higher-earning wives also reported doing the ‘vast majority’ of both domestic labour and childrearing. Sometimes this was resented and a point of contention. But others seemed to ‘embrace domestic labour as a way of presenting themselves as good wives.’ As Tichenor points out, what this means is that ‘cultural expectations of what it means to be a good wife shape the domestic negotiations of unconventional earners and produce arrangements that privilege husbands and further burden wives.’
Tichenor also surmised that in decision making the women were deferring to their husbands in ‘very self-conscious ways’ because they didn’t want to be seen as powerful, dominating, or emasculating. The couples also redefined the meaning of ‘provider’ so that the men could still fall within the definition. While in the conventional couples the provider was the person who brought home the biggest paycheque, among the other couples the men’s management of the family finances, and other noneconomic contributions, were considered part of providing. Thus it was that Bonnie, earning $114,000 a year and married to a man earning $3000, could nonetheless argue that they were ‘both providers’. Interestingly, these women were often very aware that their greater income didn’t bring them the same power within the relationship as it would a man in a more conventional marriage.