(WOMENSENEWS)--The U.S. Department of Labor has a news flash for American women--a message they definitely did not count among their reasons for Thanksgiving yesterday.
A recent department survey tells us that the average working woman spends about twice as much time as the average working man on household chores and the care of children.
This is the same picture that has been painted for a long time, of exhausted women on the "second shift" and couch-potato men not pulling their weight. But is it accurate? Are women really getting lazy husbands for the holidays?
Other findings paint a different picture.
Men in Dual-Earner Couple Doing More
In dual-earner couples--the dominant family form in the United States--men's handling of household chores and child care has increased steadily since 1977, according to the 2003 National Study of the Changing Workforce, published by the Families and Work Institute, based in New York City. This is true of men both on work days and on non-work days.
Moreover, the time women in these couples spend in such tasks has either decreased or stayed the same over this same period.
For example, in 1977 employed fathers in dual-earner couples with children spent, on average, 1.3 hours per workday on household chores compared to 3.7 for employed mothers. By 2002, the comparable figures were two hours per day for fathers and three for mothers. The "gender gap" in hours declined by more than 70 percent, from 2.4 hours per day in 1977 to one hour a day in 2002.
The researchers speculate that if these trends continue, the housework gap will close entirely.
The nurturing gap has also closed considerably.
In 1977, employed fathers in dual-earner couples allocated 1.9 hours per work day to their children compared to 3.3 hours for employed mothers. By 2003--when the comparable figures for dual-earner couples were 2.7 hours for fathers and 3.5 hours for mothers--the gap had narrowed by 57 percent. If these trends continue, the nurturing gap will shrink further.
Outperforming Other Developed Countries
American men also do more housework and child care than men in any of the other four developed countries, the Council on Contemporary Families found in its survey of France, Italy, Germany, and Japan. (The U.S. government, however, was last on the list in providing programs and benefits for families.)
The disparity between the findings by the Labor Department and the Families and Work Institute can be explained by the fact that the latter lumps together all men and all women, while the Families and Work Institute looks at families where both spouses are employed.
Data about the "average" working woman or the "average" working man--as used by the Labor Department--tells us very little. Some working men are married to stay-at-home wives who can do most of the family tasks, whereas others are married to full-time employed wives who have far less time for domestic activities. And of course, some married women have stay-at-home spouses as well.
Averages Obscure Trends
When data from all men are pooled and all we learn about is what is true for the "average" man, we can't possibly figure out what is really occurring in crucial segments of the population. Averages obscure the really important trend in this country. Namely, when men and women share the same life situation--when they are both employed and have children--their household and nurturing behavior is far more similar than different.
Other research tells us that far from pulling away from caring for their children, men--especially young men--want more time for their families.
Men between the ages of 20 and 39 were more likely than older men to give family matters top billing over career success, a national survey by the Radcliffe Public Policy Center found.
Eighty-two percent put family first and 71 percent said they would sacrifice part of their pay to have more time with their families. This agrees with surveys conducted by major corporations such as Du Pont, based in Wilmington, Del., and Merck and Co., Inc., the pharmaceutical giant based in Whitehouse Station, N.J. An analysis of national data from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan reports that fathers significantly increased their time with children--from 19 to 23 hours a week--between l981 and l997.
Getting to Know Their Kids Better
Fathers are not only spending more time with their kids, but they are also getting to know them better.
Fathers are no longer waiting for instructions from their spouses about what to do with their kids, but are acting on their own, says psychologist Scott Coltrane of the University of California, Riverside. As fathers clock more time with their kids, they get to know their wants and needs better, according to Coltrane, who bases his assertion on his own research along with findings from the U.S. census and many journal articles. Ann Crouter, a psychologist at The Pennsylvania State University and her team, find that fathers in two-earner families with middle-school-aged children know as much about their kids' activities and whereabouts as do their mothers.
Other studies back up this notion. For the first time, fathers are spending more time with their children than on their own personal interests and pursuits, reports the National Study of the Changing Workforce.
So let's let go of the scowl that may have been left by that Labor Department report. Many of the men in our lives may just deserve a smile and pat on the back.
Rosalind C. Barnett is director of the Community, Families and work program at Brandeis University and Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University. Their book "Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs" was published by Basic Books.
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