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How to Negotiate a Fair Division of Household Work

Feeling like you are overwhelmed trying to manage your job on top of everything you are doing at home?   Here are four steps to help you negotiate a fair division of household work.

  1. Define household work as “work.”
  2. Examine your ideas about gender.
  3. Know the difference between “helping” and “sharing the responsibility.”
  4. Know the difference between “following orders” and “setting the agenda.”


First of all, define household work as “work.”

Housework, child care, elder care, pet care, shopping, transporting people, paying bills, mowing the lawn, deciding what to have for dinner, cooking, etc.,  are all “work.”

Work is an activity that produces something of value to people and to society, and these activities can be paid or unpaid.  Usually we only think about our paid work as “work.” However, be aware that housework and caregiving activities also produce something of value to people and to society.   Much of this type of unpaid work is largely invisible:  we only notice if it’s not done.

The unpaid “work” of having children produces the next generation of workers, citizens, and taxpayers.  The tasks of giving birth to children and making sure they survive until adulthood keeps society going from generation to generation.   While not everyone needs to bear and raise children, someone needs to do it in order to keep our society alive for more than one generation.  These children become workers; thus, taking care of children produces able-bodied workers and taxpayers for the future.  If no one bears and raises children, our society would come to an abrupt halt.  In our culture, people often think of children as “private choices,” which, of course, they are—no one forces anyone to have children.  However, children are also “social goods” –they are necessary to keep society going.

Housecleaning, shopping, cooking, laundry, and all the other tasks that consume so much time are also productive “work” for several reasons.  Mainly, completion of these tasks is necessary in order for to care for these future workers.  Also, these activities care for present workers and allow them to go to work every day and be productive.  That is, a well-rested, well-fed, cleanly-clothed, non-distracted worker is a more productive worker.  Productive workers are good for the economy and therefore desirable workers.  Families benefit from having a desirable worker, in the form of a better standard of living.

Taking care of other family members, for instance, older parents and grandparents, also produces “something of value” to society.   Our society is based on a social contract of ensuring care for citizens who have made their contribution to society.  If families didn’t do this caregiving, we all would have to pay higher taxes to have someone else care of those who cannot take care of themselves.

  • Bottom line:  Recognize that nonpaid housework and caregiving activities are as necessary as paid work in keeping society going and keeping people able to participate in other social roles.   We all have to be productive in other ways than paid work.

Second, Examine your Ideas About Gender.

It’s impossible to live in society and not have ideas about women’s work and men’s work.  We learn these ideas so completely through socialization that we forget we learned them—they just seem natural.

  • Bottom line:  You and your partner might want to discuss your attitudes about gender skills and interests.  Gender attitudes need to be revealed:  figure out what each of you is good at, and divide up household work according to interests and abilities, not assumed gender attributes.

Third, Think About the Difference Between “Helping” and “Sharing the Responsibility.”

When the division of household work is unequal, one partner might think they want more “help” with these tasks.  However, what they really might want is “sharing,” not “help.”

When someone “helps,” that means they are doing something that is not their job—they are being cooperative, or “helpful.”  Requesting or negotiating “help” keeps the idea of whose job it “really” is the same.   What might be a more effective conversation is to think about sharing responsibility for the task, not how much one person should “help” the other person do something.

  • Bottom line:  Discuss how to best share this work, rather than how much more one person should help the other person do it.

Finally, Think About the Difference Between “Following Orders” and “Setting the Agenda.”

Research finds that one of the biggest obstacles in creating a fairer division of household labor is that one person is usually in charge of creating the list of tasks to be done and defining how and when they “should” be done, and the other person follows orders.

This “household manager” role requires a lot of mental work and responsibility, most of which is invisible—unnoticed until it’s not done.  There is also no “down time” in this role.  The buck stops with the household manager.  Often we don’t recognize this type of work as “real” work.

Sometimes the household manager willingly takes on this role.  He or she wants “help,” with the completion of tasks, but is not willing to give up the authority of defining what, how, and when things should be done.  This unwillingness leaves the other partner as the “order follower,” and makes it difficult to figure out how to “share,” rather than just “help.”

Other times, the household manager is put into this role unconsciously, and feels a sense of responsibility and mental fatigue.  Despite how much “help” with tasks he or she receives from other family members, there often is little decrease in stress or increase in life satisfaction.

  • Bottom line:  It may be useful to recognize the difference between the household manager role and the task accomplisher role.   Research shows that when both partners together decide what, when, and how household tasks should be done, gender attitudes don’t automatically decide who does what, it becomes easier to figure out how to share, and division of this socially important, unpaid work becomes more fair.

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