Second Shift

The BBC reports:

A new study has found that employed women living with their employed partner actually spend more time doing housework than single women.

The men, on the other hand see the hours they commit to housework decline once they begin living as a couple.

“Gee,” remarks Jessica Valenti, “wonder why that is.” Well, I like to wonder. Later, the piece gives us the specific numbers: “an employed woman does 15 hours a week of housework when she lives with her employed partner, up from 10 hours when single.” On the flipside? “Meanwhile the men, who do seven hours while living alone, do only five when they co-habit.” So the result here actually shows that there are two different things happening here. One is that men and women have different ex ante levels of cleanliness. Single women do 10 hours of housework, whereas single men only do seven. A perfectly equitable division of labor, should result in a couple doing a combined seventeen hours and then splitting it evenly — 8.5 hours each.


That, however, doesn’t happen. Instead, you see male shirking to the tune of 3.5 hours — cutting the male second shift down to five hours a week, and boosting the woman’s up to 12 hours. But then women put three more hours of housework in per week. The effect of those three additional hours is to raise the couples’ cleanliness standard up to the 10 hours per week per person maintained by single women. The higher ex ante level of female cleanliness creates an unfavorable initial bargaining positition. A woman can enter a relationship determined to avoid raising her housework level above the previous ten hours per week. If the man then shirks down to five hours a week of work (from a previous high of seven) he’ll be doing less work than he did while single, and living in a cleaner house. A perfectly good deal for him. Then he sits and waits for pre-existing gender norms and his wife higher ex ante expectations of cleanliness (themselves a result of the same norms) to drive her to put in even more work to raise the household to the cleanliness level that existed before he moved in.