Family-friendly policies aren't perpetuating traditional roles...at least not all the time

August 18, 2003

As work-family policies have become more common, some scholars have warned that these policies may be reinforcing gender inequality, rather than alleviating it. They argue that these practices may free women so that they can keep performing traditionally female chores at home. A new study by the University of Cincinnati Kunz Center for the Study of Work and Family suggests that family-friendly policies are not reinforcing gendered division of household chores - if you go by hard data alone. Another UC study, based on women's comments and statements, suggests the case may be a lot more complex than that.

Sarah Beth Estes, UC assistant professor of sociology, will present both studies at the American Sociological Association conference on Monday, Aug. 18, in Atlanta. She collaborated in the Kunz Center study with David Maume, the Kunz director and UC professor of sociology. In the second study, she worked with UC graduate student Vicki Dryfhout.

How can Estes explain the conflicting findings? "There is so much variation in how the policies are used and why they are used, we might not see what is actually going on when we examine quantitative data - the hard data. When you look at qualitative data - the personal statements women make - another picture emerges," says Estes.

In the first study, she and Maume examined data from the Survey of Ohio's Working Families (SOWF), an annual survey of work and family life in a Midwestern state (1998, 1999 and 2000). The sample was restricted to married or cohabiting, employed men and women ages 18-65. The study included 865 parents - 346 women and 501 men. The study examined those who used family-friendly policies such as parental leave, sick leave, working at home, flexible scheduling and on-site childcare. In an improvement over earlier measures, this study assessed use and not simply availability of these policies.

Using multiple regression models, the UC study showed that women's use of workplace flexibility is not related to their shares of various types of household labor. Men's use of workplace flexibility is negatively related to some aspects of household labor, but they aren't foisting the labor off on their wives. Instead, husbands' decreased share is associated with higher shares of household labor performed by "others." It is not clear who these others might be, Estes says. It could be hired help, children or parents. In any case, the Kunz Center study found no evidence that family-friendly policies either contribute to or detract from gendered division of household chores.

Traditionally female chores are defined as those that are frequent and inflexible, such as dish-washing, cooking, laundry and cleaning. Those that are male are those that are infrequent and flexible such as yard work and car maintenance. Some tasks, such as grocery shopping and bill-paying, are defined as "neutral" chores. Of all housework tasks, "women's" chores are considered most onerous by both men and women, according to previous studies. The study did not examine child care as a chore.

In the second study, Estes examined comments made by employed, married women in interviews. Of 103 married employed women who used at least one family-friendly policy, one-fifth said it was unrelated to their marriage - 80 percent said the policies either helped or hurt their marriage. Estes examined the comments of those who made points that touched on gendered family roles. She found four patterns, three of which support the theory that work-family policies do reinforce traditional roles at home: The second study was supported with a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Award, a Midwest Sociological Society Dissertation Grant, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a UC Charles Phelps Taft Memorial Fund Summer Faculty Fellowship and a UC University Research Council grant.
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University of Cincinnati

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