In online spaces, I see a lot of conflict happening between men and women when it comes to household labor in heterosexual relationships. And, to be honest, I think a lot of these difficult conversations would be made easier if we would define and clarify the terms we’re using. Today, I want to discuss the difference between equity and equality. It seems to me that very often, when women say they want equality as it relates to household labor, what they really mean is equity. And I think it is in this important difference that couples encounter unnecessary obstacles.
Let me start by saying that I can’t speak for all couples. And, naturally, this is going to pertain primarily to cisgender, heterosexual couples in traditional gender roles. What I find is that, among these types of relationships, the conflict usually involves women feeling like they are responsible for too much of the household labor, the mental load, and the emotional labor, and that their male partner needs to be more active in sharing these tasks. It also seems that the people engaging in these conversations tend to be couples with a very specific dynamic: mainly, that the male partner holds an inflexible job and brings in most of the household income, while the female partner is either a stay at home parent, is self-employed, or works from home. Because the female partner tends to have more flexibility with her time, she often becomes responsible for more of the parenting and household labor.
Full disclosure—this is precisely the dynamic between me and my husband. He has a full time corporate job with a very inflexible schedule. I am an author and a business owner who makes my own hours. The nature of our professional roles makes it obvious that I need to be the one who handles most of the daily tasks in our home, such as preparing the kids for school, driving them there, taking them to extracurriculars, grocery shopping, preparing meals, and more. I’ll admit that sometimes I get envious of my husband’s rigid schedule. I’d love to have the entire day dedicated to my work, with no interruptions or other non-work obligations. Unfortunately, it’s just not realistic for us right now.
But just because I need to cover most of the domestic labor in our house doesn’t mean I can be expected to do all of it. For one thing, I would never have time for my own career if I was responsible for handling every single task that is required for keeping our house running. But also, even if I didn’t have a career, maintaining children and a home is a full-time job. And I don’t mean “full time” as in 40 hours a week and clocking out for the weekend. I mean it is a 24/7 position. It never ends. No one who has a partner should be expected to do it all alone.
This is where the conversation about equitable division of labor comes in, and the importance of being precise with our language. I sometimes hear women online saying that they want equal division of labor. Equal, in this case, would suggest that both husband and wife split all the domestic and child-rearing responsibilities down the middle, with no regard for their unique external obligations. When you ask these women if that’s really what they mean, they usually say no, that would be unreasonable and unrealistic.
They understand that their husband has a rigid schedule and strict demands, as well as the looming dread of losing their job if they are unable to meet all of their deadlines and expectations. Women like me who are self-employed or have less demanding work schedules understand that it’s fair for them to do more of the household work than their husbands. So, when you get to the bottom of what they’re really asking for, it’s equity. Not equality.
I think this is important for couples to understand, because it is no surprise that communication on this issue falls apart when equality is being used but equity is meant. Of course husbands might bristle at the idea of splitting household and child-rearing chores 50/50 when they work far more than their wives. Of course wives would become frustrated and angry if they’re expecting equality and not getting it. What is needed, in most cases anyway, is equity.
Equity considers each other’s external responsibilities and obligations. It factors in things like each partner’s workload, work related stress, and so on. In my marriage, we have worked hard to establish equity when it comes to household labor, making sure that we each contribute to the household in accordance with our external obligations.
If I had to put a number on it, I’d say that I handle about 70% of the household chores and child-rearing responsibilities, while he handles about 30%. He has his own list of tasks that are specifically his (for example, he insists on doing the “dirty” jobs, like cleaning the toilets and snaking the drain). I have my own list, too. But in addition to that, we constantly seek opportunities to remove burden and stress from each other. He does his 30% of the household work devotedly, and I can trust they will get done. He also takes the initiative to look for ways to help me with my 70% of the housework. For instance, if he has to take a work call on the weekend, he puts on his Bluetooth headphones and moves around the house, pushing a broom and mop while he takes the call.
By the same token, I try to anticipate his needs and ease his burdens when I can. I bring him coffee in the afternoons (I should have mentioned he works from home, holed away in a closet we converted into an office). I try my best to bring him breakfast and lunch, since his workday usually begins at 7:00am and he seldom gets breaks even long enough to grab some food. When I can, I offer to proofread things for him, pick up his prescriptions from the drug store, and take on whatever things I can think of that might make his life easier. He does the same for me.
This is equity. It is understanding that we have different external obligations, and therefore, our obligations to the kids and household must fundamentally be different. It doesn’t excuse my husband from participating in household work and being there for our kids just because he has a job that pays most of our bills. He must participate in maintaining our home. By the same token, I work very hard to bring in money in whatever ways I can so that all the financial burdens don’t fall on his shoulders. Granted, my contribution is much smaller than his. But every bit helps, and I support him in other ways by keeping the majority (like I said, about 70%) of our household functioning so that he has food in the pantry, clean clothes to wear, and happy children.
Do we do this perfectly? No. We often have to revisit what is equitable as our shared and unique obligations shift. Sometimes, we don’t show up for each other as we should. We let each other down. We have to have hard conversations. But this is something that we see as a lifelong commitment—or at least a commitment we have to manage until we are retired empty-nesters. We devote ourselves to navigating the hard conversations so that we can achieve equity in our home. Equality, for us, isn’t necessary or realistic. And our success at navigating these difficult conversations radically improved once we focused on equity instead of equality.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.