Domestic chores: Time-use survey shows equality starts at home

As the media gears up to cover what will be a tumultuous year in federal and international politics, it's worthwhile taking stock to examine what's happening in other very local politics: the one inside our homes.

In the little Australian book Kids' View of the World, five-year old Sam says "mums do cooking for us after a hard day". Six-year old Brooke says "dads just eat junk and are always at work". It's harsh, but not far removed from what happens at my place.

The latest Bureau of Statistics time-use survey (budget cuts mean it actually took place in 2006) found Australian women spent two hours 27 minutes per day on housework and men 43 minutes.

Women spent two hours 39 minutes per day on childcare and men, less than half that (one hour six minutes).

Analysis of a more recent French survey by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research finds that even where women dedicate themselves to their careers more than their partners, "women still spend more time on domestic tasks than their partners on average, implying no role reversal in the division of labour".

Many of us know of cases where the opposite is true. The man specialises in cleaning, cooking and caring for children while his high-flying wife concentrates on her career. But they are rare.

In their now decades-old book Parenting for Peace and Justice, Kathleen and James McGinnis present a questionnaire to get couples thinking about who does what which I have adapted to establish what happens at my place.

It includes questions such as: who does the cooking? Who cleans up? Who does the laundry? Who reads stories with children? Who helps with homework? Who helps settles disputes? Who attends school assembly? Who stays at home when the child is sick? Who deals with the school and teachers? Who shops for the food? Who mows the lawn? Who repairs the house? Who puts out the garbage? Who soothes and cuddles the child? Who drives the family motor vehicle? Who takes the child to the doctor? Who earns the money the family most uses? Who coaches the kids' sporting and other competitive teams? Who cares for the pet? Who helps plan parties? And so on.

When my partner and I answered the questions we learnt that we've come some way but I still do an awful lot. Unusually, I drive and help maintain the family car. ​"Dads usually know about cars but in this family it's the opposite," my daughter observes.

Women, however, can be be their worst enemy. When it comes to chores, "they don't want to do it, but don't delegate," complains a bloke I know. "I like shopping but I'm not allowed to. I get beat up when I get the wrong brand."

We've made gains. Between 1992 and 2006 the amount of housework done by men climbed from 37 to 43 minutes per day. We can accelerate it by the messages we send to our kids.

Too often we give the impression that girls should be interested in cooking and boys in sport. If girls see their mother playing sport and their father is cooking they are likely to believe that it's okay.

Moving towards equality can be confronting, uncomfortable and time-consuming. But it offers rewards: fewer arguments and less resentment. It can also reveal new or previously latent skills in family members including in each of the kids.

For me, it'll mean letting go more and trusting others to do things almost as well as I think I do myself. It's not just equality we move closer to but, potentially, humility. Master chefs don't get there if we don't let them near the stove! This is the kind of difficult power-shifting and power-sharing that really can change the world.

First published in The Canberra Times, January 13, 2017

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