An (im)balancing act

Rosie Wang, Resident Blogger (’14, Columbia Law School)

As the year comes to a close, and law school finals draw close, my already questionable domestic skills really go by the wayside.  I have no real groceries besides frozen tater tots and a jar of capers, my desk is in disarray, and my laundry is perilously close to what can only be described as a underwear crisis. It’s times like these that I can’t help wondering, how do people who work and have kids and other obligations keep up with their housework if even I can’t? How do actual lawyers do this? The answer to this question turns out to be a complicated one, involving gender roles in parenting, housekeeping, and work.

For example, did you know that 84% of married women who are lawyers have a spouse who is employed full time compared to only 44% of married men who are lawyers?  Thus, lawyers who are men are more likely to have a partner shoulder the majority of housework and childcare. This phenomenon isn’t unique to lawyers however, as 55.1% of men compared to 72.1% of women spent time on childcare on the average day. Perhaps even more worryingly, the class divide between women is growing so that even if more educated, more well off women have increased their access to paid maternity leave over time (27% in the early 1970s to 66% in 2006-2008), women who do not have their high school degree’s access has stagnated at 18% through the same time period. All of this matters for reproductive justice because there is a gender-based imbalance in career consequences related to getting married, starting a family, and having children.

Wrapped up in this imbalance is also the debate on the division of domestic labor and it’s impact on marriage.  One study reports that the equal division of housework is correlated with higher rates of divorce (in Norwegian married couples). On the other side,  it doesn’t seem unimaginable to me that communities where the norm is for women take on all the household responsibilities would also stigmatize divorce more, pressuring couples to stay together despite unhappiness or incompatibility.

Stress rates, measured by levels of cortisol, were measured in married women and men, and declined in married women when their husbands shared the housework.  Stress rates for men, on the other hand, did not  decline in married men unless men had more time to relax, at the expense of their wives’ leisure time. Alternately, a different study promisingly shows that men have higher levels of well-being and lower levels of work-family conflict when making an equal contribution to the household work. How can these be reconciled? The former study was conducted on 30 dual earner couples in Los Angeles, and the latter over 7 European countries. Maybe the difference lies in the sample. By changing innate attitudes in our country towards work as gendered, perhaps we can change stress levels and happiness levels for the better across the board.