Re-Thinking Who Does What: The Case of Interracial Partnerships and Housework

By Catherine Bolzendahl and Zoya Gubernskaya

For many Americans, women’s housework is synonymous with love. Imagine the Thanksgiving dinner, where the moms, aunts, sisters, and grandmas gather in the kitchen, working all day to make the dishes so proudly displayed on the table. Stereotypically the dads, uncles, brothers, and grandfathers congregate in family room, watching football and telling jokes. Times are certainly changing and no one would be too surprised if Uncle Leo had a great dish of scalloped potatoes he wanted to make, or Cousin Linda preferred to play a pick-up game of football in the back yard. Still, the core chores of the home fall on women, who spend more than twice the time men do on cooking, cleaning, shopping, and laundry. Why are women still doing so much more housework? A variety of explanations help account for some of this: women’s lower or less intensive employment, men’s greater earnings, intra-family status, social policy, and gender ideology. The last of these – gender ideology – is particularly interesting because it tells us how people feel about who should do what. Both men and women (but more men) think women are better at these tasks and take to them more “naturally.” As many gender scholars have noted we become stuck in these notions, and to make matters more complex these roles and chores become interconnected with culture, love, support, and family ties. After all, no one wants Grandma to go on strike when it’s time for some homemade apple pie.

How then can we understand how gender expectations frame our understanding of women’s and men’s housework time? If we create these differences, does that also mean they can be undone? To help get at these questions, we looked at people who partnered with someone of a different race or ethnicity. Part of the construction of family and gender roles is linked to the fact that most Americans partner homogamously (i.e., with someone very similar to them). Homogamous partnerships protect economic, occupational, educational, and yes, racial, differences in society by reproducing what already exists. By disrupting one aspect of this, partnering with someone of a different racial or ethnic group may allow individuals to rethink many things taken for granted – gender roles among them.

Increasingly, we know that racial/ethnic groups differ in the average time men and women spend on housework – even controlling for a variety of socio-economic differences. This suggests already that there are cultural differences in how housework time is decided. In our own study, we confirm some prior work – the gender gap in housework is biggest among Hispanics, and lowest among blacks with whites and Asians being in the middle.  However, we go on to show that those in racially/ethnically homogamous relationships have a much bigger gender gap in housework time compared to those in interracial unions. In other words, interracially partnered respondents have more housework equity. This happens because the women partnered to someone of a different race/ethnicity spend less time on housework compared to the women partnered to someone of the same race/ethnicity. The drop is especially steep for Hispanic and Asian women – they spend about 20-25 minutes less on housework per day if married to someone of a different race/ethnicity.

Bolzendahl1Does this pattern hold for all types of interracial partnerships? This question is not easy to answer as the prevalence of intermarriage varies by race and gender. For example, almost 53 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics marry someone of another ethnicity, with 90 percent of those being to whites. In contrast, only 7 percent of black women and 17 percent of Asian men marry outside of their racial group. Our analysis of the largest groups show that Hispanic women partnered with white men and white women partnered with black men have more equal division of housework than their homogamously partnered peers. More research is needed, but these findings suggest that the partners’ race/ethnicity may not matter as much as the fact that they are different.

Time on housework is not a given. A combination of factors matter, and these include cultural expectations about time on housework. Inter-racial/ethnic partnerships provide a window into this process. Mama (of Mexican origin) may decide the tortillas don’t need to be homemade this year, and Dad (European mutt) may decide to dust off the family recipe for latkes. The love remains but now the ladies can join that game of jenga in the family room.

Further reading:
– Bolzendahl, Catherine, and Zoya Gubernskaya. 2016. “Racial and Ethnic Homogamy and Gendered Time on Core Housework.Socius 2:2378023116676277.
– Pinto, Katy, and Scott Coltrane. 2009. “Division of Labor in Mexican Origin and Anglo Families: Structure and Culture.” Sex Roles 60:482-95.
– Vasquez, Jessica M. 2014. “The Whitening Hypothesis Challenged: Biculturalism in Latino and Non-Hispanic White Intermarriage.” Sociological Forum 29(2):386-407.
– Wang, Wendy. 2012.The Rise of Intermarriage: Rates, Characteristics Vary by Race and Gender. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
– Wight, Vanessa R., Suzanne M. Bianchi, and Bijou R. Hunt. 2012. “Explaining Racial/Ethnic Variation in Partnered Women’s and Men’s Housework: Does One Size Fit All?Journal of Family Issues 34(3):394-427.

Catherine Bolzendahl is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research intersects with political sociology and the sociology of gender. She is currently an editorial board member for Gender & Society. She co-authored an award-winning book on American definitions of family, and has published several articles in peer-reviewed sociology and political science journals, including Social ForcesBritish Journal of Sociology, Gender & Society,Political Studies, and Social Politics

Zoya Gubernskaya is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her research interests are at the intersection of sociology and demography of family, immigration, aging and health. She has published several articles in peer-reviewed sociology and interdisciplinary journals, including Journal of Marriage and Family, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, and Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences.


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