Why High-Earning Mothers Do More Household Chores

Women who earn a lot more than their husbands still end up with more than the lion’s share of chores after having a baby.
Updated April 11, 2024
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The reward for hard work is more work?

A new study from the University of Bath shows that wives who earn a lot more than their husbands end up doing more household chores after they become parents than their husbands do, regardless of who did more of the chores before the baby came.

Let’s look at what exactly the study found, and how it applies to how you might be conducting your personal finances.

What the study says about moms and work

Joanna Syrda, an assistant professor of business economics at the University of Bath in the UK, examined data from more than 6,000 heterosexual double-income couples in the U.S. from 1999-2017.

She discovered that in married couples in which the wife earned substantially more money than the husband did, the wife started doing more housework after the couple had a baby than the husband did relative to the division of housework before the arrival of the baby.

Since having a baby increases the total amount of housework, the wife ended up doing both more overall and a higher percentage of housework than she had before the baby arrived.

Interestingly, in married couples, the wife tends to take on more household work the more she earns relative to her husband. Also, in couples who cohabitate but are not legally married, the division of labor in household chores is more balanced.

Why does this happen?

Why do women take on more housework as they earn more money than their husbands? And why do wives accept a greater proportion of household chores than cohabiting women?

Syrda speculates that it goes back to the idea of gender norms and how they are unbalanced when women earn more than men, at least for married couples.

Typically, being the breadwinner has been associated with masculinity. But as wives earn ever-greater levels of income than their husbands, it upsets this stereotype.

So, it is possible that couples try to restore the gender-role balance by having the woman take on more of the household chores, according to Sydra.

Why does it matter?

This retroactive shift in the division of household labor matters because it benefits everyone to have women participating more in the paid labor force and to have men participating more in household labor and child care.

A 2018 study by Amanda Weinstein, an assistant professor in the Department of Economics within the College of Business Administration at the University of Akron in Ohio, concluded that “for every 10% increase in women working, we see a 5% increase in wages” for all workers, male and female.

Economic stability for individual family units and across the entire economic system increases with more labor participation by women, whether they are partnered or not and whether they are the primary breadwinners or not.

In her study, Syrda concludes that the trend toward some married women taking on more of the household chores despite being the breadwinners can have long-term negative effects.

In a University of Bath press release, she notes that the way couples divide the household workload after becoming parents can contribute to earnings inequalities over the course of their lives, raising concerns for those focused on disparities surrounding women and money.

She adds that “these norms may be passed to their children.”

More women remain outside the workforce

While these results are troubling, they aren't surprising. The data set Syrda worked with was from before the arrival of COVID-19, but the pandemic actually accelerated the trend of women placing a greater focus on the household, even at the expense of their careers.

During the pandemic, there was a widespread withdrawal of American women from the labor market. In fact, by one estimate, 1.1 million women left the labor force between February 2020 and January 2022.

In many cases, women withdrew from work to focus on their children or other family members.

Bottom line

While mothers have made astonishing amounts of progress in the labor market in the last few decades, with women becoming breadwinners more than at any other point in history, the actual gains may be more cultural than economic.

Women are still paid much less than men are. And when schools closed in 2020, it was mothers who fled the workforce in large numbers to care for kids, not fathers.

If the highest-achieving women step forward voluntarily to do more than their share of housework when they become mothers, it doesn’t say much for equality and decreasing gender stereotyping.

Author Details

Elizabeth Rollins Elizabeth Rollins has degrees in literature and business, and she's combined these loves into a career in writing about personal finance. Her special areas of interest are debt, value, budgeting, education, and retirement.

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