Do same-gender couples have more egalitarian relationships?
It’s rainbow season (better known as Pride Month)! In honor of the occasion, I want to tackle a question I’m frequently asked—often by heterosexual, cisgender women who have had it up to *here* with their male partner: do same-gender couples have more egalitarian relationships?
Since this is a big question, I’ll focus on what I know best: household labor. Those of us who study the division of labor typically focus on time, money, and/or gender to predict how a given couple will divide up chores. To oversimplify a bit, we would expect the partner who has more time available (i.e., works fewer hours for pay), earns less, and/or identifies as female to do more housework. In turn, we’d predict that the partner who has less time available after paid work, earns more, and/or identifies as male will do a smaller share of the chores.
In our culture, responsibility for home and children are “coded female.” One way to think about what that means is to imagine a generic individual vacuuming a carpet or changing a diaper. Many, perhaps most, people will spontaneously conjure up an image of a female person performing those tasks.
Within the feminized domestic sphere, there are also a handful of specific tasks coded male. If I asked you to guess which partner in a different-gender couple mows the lawn or takes out the trash, you’d probably identify the male partner. (And, statistically, this would be a good bet.)
When a different-gender couple moves in together, they often fall into the standard gendered pattern: the female partner does more of the housework overall, with the exception of a handful of “manly” chores like lawn care and trash collection. This may not be a conscious decision. It’s just the easiest “default” pattern. (This is one reason I recommend that couples make their division of labor as explicit as possible—to disrupt that default—but I digress.)
But if both partners identify as female or both as male (or if one or both partners identifies as nonbinary), that “easy” heuristic no longer applies. On one hand, that’s not great, in the sense that it reflects heteronormativity and a lack of representation of queer couples in media, pop culture, etc. But on the other hand, in the absence of a clear default, those couples may be freer to create a division of labor that reflects their personal preferences more so than societal norms.
That’s the theory. What happens in practice? Most of the data I’ve seen suggests that same-gender couples indeed divide household chores more equally than their different-gender peers. That is, the gap between partners’ time spent on housework and childcare tends to be smaller in same- than in different-gender couples.
One intriguing study suggests that lesbian and gay couples might get to equality via different routes, however. Lesbian couples in that study tended to split each individual chore, whereas gay couples split the overall workload. You can think of the difference this way: one option is to take turns doing the dishes (lesbian couples) and another is to have one partner be responsible for cooking and the other for dishes (gay couples).
So, yes, my hetero female friends are right to suspect that the average same-gender partnership is more equitable than the average hetero partnership. “More equitable,” however, doesn’t necessarily mean “exactly 50/50.”
In lesbian couples, for instance, the biological mother of the child often does a greater share of the childcare work (but not necessarily the housework). When asked to explain why, couples often cite factors like breastfeeding or other biological correlates of pregnancy. (I wasn’t able to find a comparable study of gay couples, unfortunately. If you know of one, please share!)
The old standbys, time and money, also play a role in same-gender couples’ division of labor. Often, the partner who earns more and/or works fewer hours ends up taking on more of the housework. Interestingly, though, this can vary by task. Working/earning less is correlated with doing more female-typed chores like cleaning and cooking. But, at least for lesbian couples, working more hours is associated with doing more of the male-typed tasks like repairs and yardwork. This suggests that male-typed tasks are associated with economic power, even in couples comprised of two women.
So, the tl;dr:
Yes, same-gender couples tend to divide household labor more equitably than different-gender couples.
But, that doesn’t mean they do everything 50/50.
Point #2 raises some interesting questions: in an ideal world, would every couple divide household labor 50/50? Or, would it be enough to reduce the importance of gender in shaping couples’ allocation decisions? In the case of different-gender couples, for instance, would we be okay with a distribution that averaged 50/50, because equal numbers of couples put more housework on men’s plate as on women’s? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!
For your consideration: The songs from Bo Burnham’s Netflix show Inside have been stuck in my head for weeks now—mostly in a good way. I recommend watching it, if only because it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s a musical comedy that’s simultaneously hilarious and deeply disturbing. (Be forewarned that it’s a bit navel-gaze-y and covers topics related to mental health and suicidality.) After you watch, be sure to check out the extensive Internet Discourse about whether the special is brilliant, the epitome of white male angst, or something in between…
My writing, elsewhere: ICYMI, I wrote an OpEd for the Guardian over the weekend arguing that it’s time to retire the trope of the Bumbling Dad. If you like this newsletter, you’ll probably be into that piece, too :)