Entrenching gender roles early

When I was a kid, my siblings and I were expected to do chores around the house. For most of my growing up years, there were four girls and one boy in my family (my youngest brother did not arrive on the scene until I was 17). While we were all expected to keep our bedrooms reasonably neat and to make our beds each morning, there was a distinct gender divide in who did what elsewhere in and around the house: my sisters and I were assigned inside tasks such as dusting, vacuuming and doing the laundry while my brother helped out with mowing the lawn and putting out the garbage. We certainly thought his chores were more appealing; I don’t know what he thought of ours.

When my kids were young, they had chores, too. I don’t actually remember much about who did what, but I like to think my daughter and son had equal opportunities to do different kinds of housework, including cooking.

Part of my daughter’s feminism is trying to turn her sons, now 13 and 17, into young men who can fend and care for themselves rather than assuming a female will be around to do so. They are each responsible for cooking one meal a week as well as taking on regular chores around the house, both inside and out. The first test of her efforts will be this fall, when the oldest leaves home for university. She is hoping there won’t be late-night phone calls about how to do the laundry, as was the experience of a friend of mine.

Who does what in Canadian families?

Household responsibilities, including providing care to children, remains very gendered in heterosexual two-parent families in Canada. According to StatsCan, in 2010, women spent an average of 50.1 hours per week on child care; more than double the average time (24.4 hours) spent by men. In terms of active engagement with children, women spent an average of 2.6 hours daily and men just 1.9.

In addition to unpaid childcare labour, women spent an average of 3.6 hours per day doing unpaid household work compared to men’s 2.4 in 2015.

There is no doubt that men are more involved in parenting and the tasks required to keep the family home running now than they were when I was a kid. But women still do more of both, even when both they and their male partner work outside the home. And, the division of labour within the home is also gendered, with women doing much more of the cleaning and laundry and men focusing on outdoor tasks including lawn and garden work. Women spend more time than men caring for extended family members, such as ageing parents.

Although Canada has parental leave legislation that allows parents to share paid time away from work when a baby is born or adopted, relatively few men are taking advantage of this opportunity: in 2013, only 30.8% of new fathers took parental leave.

In 2015, fathers were the stay-at-home parent in just one of 10 families where one parent remained at home with children.

Learning early

According to a recent article in The Atlantic, it should be no surprise that household roles remain gendered. Research conducted in the United States (I tried to find similar research done in Canada, but came up empty-handed) found that:

“mothers tend to spend more time with daughters cooking and cleaning, while fathers tend to spend more time with sons relaxing.”

Teen boys, according to the research, spend an average of an hour more per day than teen girls engaged with screens of one kind or another, while teen girls spend more than double the time of boys doing cleaning and cooking. These differences were very similar to those between adult men and women.

Jill Yavorsky, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina noted in the research report:

“Kids’ activities are in part driven by their own parents’ gender division of labour. These really mirror each other in a lot of ways.”

Apparently, this gender divide extends to children’s allowances: in a study of 10,000 families in the United States, the average boy received $13.80 a week and the average girl just $6.70, thus setting the stage early for the gendered wage gap that lies ahead.  (A recent study by the Royal Bank of Canada found that women between 25 and 29 who have children experience a drop in income of almost 20% for the five years after giving birth, even when they return to work, while men who are new fathers enjoy an increase in their wages.)

The American study also found that parents paid boys for “personal upkeep” activities such as brushing their teeth and taking a shower, but did not pay girls for such activities.

As the research report notes, it is fine to provide kids with images of women and men in “non-traditional” roles, but the bottom line is that children mimic what they see. As long as parents continue to divide household responsibilities along gender lines, their children, once they grow up, will think about housework in the same way.

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