How are household chores divided in female breadwinner couples?
1In Spain, the phenomenon of couples where the female is the sole earner is relatively recent, and to a large extent is the consequence of the destruction of employment in male-dominated sectors during the economic recession.
2The characteristics of these couples have changed since 2003: today they are younger; they are more likely to have children and to cohabit; also, there are more couples in which the female partner has a higher level of education than the male.
3Families where the woman is sole earner are more egalitarian than other types of family. This is reflected in a more equitable division of household chores between men and women.
4However, in Spain, there has been no substantial change in the gender gap in the performance of these chores, which still fall mainly to women, even when the woman is the only partner in paid employment.
The graph shows how the difference of time (in minutes) dedicated to each task according to gender has changed between 2003 and 2010. The figure, therefore, means the value of this difference.
In recent times, society has been witness to a transformation in family models. The massive incorporation of women into the labour market has been one of the greatest changes to occur in Western societies (Bianchi et al., 2000; Goldin, 2006). Couples in which both partners are employed have become the norm, while couples in which the male is sole earner have decreased. The number of couples in which the only the female partner is the sole or main earner has also increased, especially during the economic recession. Studying these couples, known as female-breadwinner (FBW) couples, in contrast with the traditional male-breadwinner model, is important because they represent a new allocation of gender roles in the household. This is especially true when the female partner is the sole earner (Vitali and Arpino, 2016; Bueno and Vidal-Coso, 2017).
In Spain there has been an evolution of the different types of couple according to each partner’s employment status (figure 1). In contrast with the situation in other Western countries, where dual-earner couples were already in the majority in the 1990s, in Spain the sole male-earner model was still predominant. Even so, the female employment rate has increased in recent decades, as shown by the fact that in the early 1990s the proportion of dual-earner couples was less than 25% of total couples, whereas today they represent over 50%.
The evolution of FBW couples in which the woman is the sole earner shows a significant increase after the onset of the economic recession. The main reason behind this increase is that the financial crisis had a greater impact on jobs that are traditionally male-dominated, such as those in the industrial and construction sectors. Couples where the woman is sole earner represented about 5% of all Spanish couples until 2008; then the figure started to rise, achieving a peak of 12.9% in the first quarter of 2013. From that year on, it has gradually decreased to stabilise at around 10%.
What are the characteristics of couples where the female is the sole earner? How are gender roles distributed between the members of these couples in Spain? To answer these questions, a comparison will be made between couples at two different points in time: firstly, in 2003, when the economy was expanding, and secondly in 2010, when it was in recession. To measure the division of roles, the indicator used will be the time allocation of each member of the couple.
1. How is time distributed in female-breadwinner couples?
What differences are there between the man and the woman in FBW couples with respect to the time that they devote to each activity? Answering this question is key to understanding how gender roles are organised in the uses of time of these couples.
Figure 2 shows the difference between the time devoted by women and men to three activities: household chores, leisure and personal care. These differences reflect the average time that each devotes to these activities daily. The upper part of the axis indicates that women devote more time than men, while lower part indicates the opposite.
The most interesting difference is observed in the time allocated to household chores. In contrast with other countries, in Spain there is no change in the sign of the gender gap with respect to time devoted to domestic chores, so women continue devoting more time than men to these tasks, even when they are the only member of the couple in paid employment.
However, the difference is lower than in the sample for all couples, and also, it has decreased over the period studied. In other words, in FBW couples, the time devoted to household chores is distributed more evenly between the male and the female than it is across all couples. Also, in FBW couples, the gender gap has gradually been reduced over the course of the years.
In 2003, women in FBW couples in Spain spent 55 minutes more on housework than their partners, whereas in 2010, they spent just 13 minutes more. The reduction of the gender gap is similar to the amount observed for all couples together.
Another activity that shows a significant difference between types of couples is the time they devote to leisure. Women in FBW couples spend approximately 3 hours less per day than men on leisure activities, and this fell by approximately 20 minutes between 2003 and 2010. In other words, in FBW couples, during these seven years women reduced the difference in leisure time with respect to men, but this difference remains significant. In contrast, the gender gap is smaller for the overall sample of couples. In 2010, the men enjoyed 45 minutes more of leisure per day than the women, without significant changes with respect to 2003.
Finally, women in FBW couples spend less time on personal care than their partners. However, the gender gap has decreased. When all couples are considered, the gender gap is almost zero and it has remained very stable. It seems then that the greater amount of time that women in FBW couples spend on housework and paid employment is compensated by a considerable reduction in their leisure time and by less time spent on personal care.
2. Spain in the European context
As seen in the previous section, the gender gap in time distribution persists in Spanish couples and also – although to a lesser degree – in couples where the division of roles in the labour market might lead one to imagine a more equitable distribution, such as, for example, in FBW couples. But what happens in the other countries in Europe? Figure 3 shows the gender gaps in household chores in some countries: Italy (which, as seen in figure 1, has undergone a massive incorporation of women into the labour market similar to that seen in Spain), France and the United Kingdom (countries where the generalised incorporation of women into the labour market took place earlier).
The graph shows that for all couples overall, the gender gap is positive in all countries, in other words women devote more time to household chores. There are important differences between countries: in the United Kingdom and France the difference is slightly above one hour, whereas in Italy it reaches 3 hours.
As for FBW couples, two different patterns are observed. Firstly, in Spain and Italy, the woman continues to be the person who devotes most time to household chores. The difference is especially significant in Italy (over one hour). Secondly, in France and the United Kingdom, the situation is reversed and men devote more time to household chores than their partners.
Thus, compared with other European countries, Spain is still a long way off from equality, as in some countries FBW couples have managed to reverse the gender gap in household chores. Even so, the situation is better than in Italy, where gender inequalities are still considerable and where FBW couples still present important inequalities in the division of household chores.
3. Main characteristics of female-breadwinner couples in Spain
The main characteristics of FBW couples have been estimated at the two observation time points (figure 4). The figures reveal that these characteristics have changed significantly in Spain over the seven-year period between 2003 and 2010. The proportion of FBW couples increased considerably in this period (from 5% to 10.7%), and this produced variations in their characteristics.
During the economic recession, FBW couples have become younger in Spain. Between 2003 and 2010, the mean age of each of the members of these couples decreased by almost five years. As a result, they were slightly younger than the members of the overall couples group in 2010, whereas in 2003 they were significantly older.
Another noticeable change in the characteristics of Spanish FBW couples (figure 4) is the increase in the number of cohabiting (non-married) couples and couples with children. The proportion of FBW couples that cohabit has dramatically increased from 7.2% in 2003 to 16.7% in 2010. The proportion of cohabiting couples in the overall population also grown but the increase was smaller. To a large extent this is the consequence of the rejuvenation observed, as younger couples are more likely to cohabit.
Meanwhile, a lower proportion of FBW couples have children in the household compared with couples overall, in 2003 and 2010 alike. Nevertheless, the proportion of FBW couples with children rose by over 10 points in this period, while the increase for the overall population was only 3.6 points. In fact, the proportion of FBW couples with children exceeded 50% in 2010. It must be taken into account that the presence of children in the household has a very significant effect on the division of roles between the couple. Thus, childless couples often present a more equal behaviour in the division of household chores, whereas the arrival of children is usually the trigger for growing differences in the allocation of time (Ajenjo and García Román, 2014).
The distribution of couples by level of education also presents significant differences between the FBW couples and couples overall, as well as differences over time. In FBW couples, the proportion of female partners with a higher level of education than the male partner is greater. This difference has increased significantly in the period under analysis (from a fifth in 2003 to almost a third in 2010). In contrast, the proportion of couples in which the male has a higher level of education has decreased, as has the proportion of couples in which both members have the same level of education. In general, the growth of the population with higher education levels has been greater among the female population, therefore it is much more probable that the female partner will have a higher level of education. In FBW couples, the male partner who is now unemployed had worked in the sectors most affected by the crisis (construction and industry), in which the education level required is lower.
Figure 5 shows the distribution of the population by age group and gender. This enables the changes in the average ages of FBW couples to be better understood. In 2003, a high proportion of FBW couples were concentrated at the peak of the pyramid, since they were couples in which the male partner was retired and the female partner was not.
In 2010, on the other hand, there was a higher proportion in the population group aged below 45 years old. If we take into account that, according to the definition adopted in this study, FBW couples are made up of a woman who is employed and a man who is not employed, it can be concluded that the reason behind the increase in FBW couples is related with growth in male unemployment, since in its early days the crisis affected the more male-dominated sectors.
4. Conclusions: few reasons for optimism in the redefinition of roles
The data on how couples allocate their time has enabled us to analyse FBW households in Spain, as well as to explore trends over time, by comparing survey data from 2003 and 2010. Also compared were FBW families and other types of family arrangements.
In contrast with other countries where the proportion of FBW couples has remained stable in recent decades, in Spain, this type of couple is relatively new, and a high proportion of such couples are the consequence of increased job destruction in male-oriented labour sectors during the economic recession. Traditionally, Spanish FBW couples were mainly the result of a retired male and a female still in the labour market, but more recently these couples are younger and are driven by the higher impact of unemployment on male-dominated jobs. In 2010, Spanish FBW couples were younger and more likely to cohabit and have children, and showed a greater proportion of women with higher education levels than their male partners than in 2003.
The analysis of time allocation shows that FBW couples are more egalitarian than other types of couples, as reflected in the lower gender gap in household chores (there is increased male involvement). Even so, it is interesting to observe that this tendency differs in Spain from that observed in other countries such as France or the United Kingdom, where the male spends more time on housework when he is not employed and his partner is employed. In Spain, there is no reversal in the gender gap for time spent on housework, and women still do more housework even if they are the sole earner. It seems that FBW couples have a different meaning in Spain: if you are a female and the only person in your family that works, you will continue to do a double working day, inside and outside of the home.
When explaining the allocation of household roles, Spanish FBW couples appear to be more driven by the gender socialization perspective. According to this perspective, housework is a symbolic field in which men and women perform according to what is expected based on their gender identity. Consequently, even when gender roles in the productive sphere have switched, women continue doing more housework than would be expected (West and Zimmermann, 1987). Similarly, when the traditional male-breadwinner model is violated, there is a gender-deviance neutralization effect, and husbands who are more dependent in terms of earnings attempt to reinforce their gender expectations by doing less housework (Brines, 1994). In Spanish society, traditional gender norms seem to be more deep-rooted than in other societies and the role of women as the main performers of household chores remains strong (Sevilla Sanz, 2010).
In the future, we expect that a high proportion of men in FBW couples will ultimately also find employment. The instability and precariousness of the Spanish labour market makes it difficult to maintain a family with only one salary. Within this context, families with a sole earner (whether male or female) are not sustainable. Given the contradictory allocation of gender roles in household duties in a context where the division of paid work is unequal (when only the woman is employed), it is not possible to be overly optimistic about the future distribution of roles when these couples return to both members being in paid employment. The return to a dual-earner arrangement might suppose an increase in the gender gap in household duties when the man returns to the labour market and his time availability decreases.
5. Methodological notes: Time Use Surveys as a tool for ascertaining the distribution of household chores
The data used come from the Time Use Survey (Encuesta de Empleo del Tiempo) undertaken by Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE). The information is obtained by means of a diary in which the respondents report all their activities during a 24-hour period. In addition to these activities, the respondents also provide sociodemographic information about themselves and their families. The survey has no defined periodicity and, to date, there have been two editions of the survey: 2002-2003 and 2009-2010 (for simplification we refer to them as 2003 and 2010). The 2003 sample was composed of 46,774 individuals living in 20,603 households. The 2010 sample was composed of 25,895 individuals living in 9,541 households.
The study has only taken into account heterosexual couples where both members are aged between 15 and 64 years old. The analysis combines sociodemographic information and the diary data obtained. The characteristics included in the analysis are in line with what previous studies considered to be determining factors in explaining partners’ differences in time allocation (Ajenjo and García Román, 2014). These characteristics are: employment status, level of education, age, type of union (marriage or cohabitation), and presence of children in the household.
The type of couple according to employment status considers which member of the couple is employed. Employed individuals can work full or part-time, while individuals who are not employed can be unemployed or out of the labour force. This variable defines an FBW couple in the study as a couple in which only the woman is employed.
From the 24-hours diary we have computed a summary measure of time spent in ten types of activities (housework, leisure, personal care, care for others, meals, purchase, study, commuting, others). The sum of all activities for each person is 1,440 minutes (24 hours). This study only shows the results for housework, leisure and personal care, which are the activities where differences between the time spent by women and men differ to the greatest extent.
AJENJO, M., and J. GARCÍA ROMÁN (2014): "Cambios en el uso del tiempo de las parejas. ¿Estamos en el camino hacia una mayor igualdad?", Revista Internacional de Sociología, 72(2).
BIANCHI, S.M., M. MILKIE, L. SAYER, and J. ROBINSON (2000): "Is anyone doing the housework? Trends in the gender division of household labor", Social Forces, 79(1).
BRINES, J. (1994): "Economic dependency, gender, and the division of labor at home", The American Journal of Sociology, 100(3).
BUENO, X., and E. VIDAL-COSO (2017): "Households economically headed by women in times of expansion and crisis: the case of Latin American migrants in Spain", Revista de Historiografía, 26.
GARCÍA ROMÁN, J. (2017): "The division of gender roles in female breadwinner couples in the United States and Spain", Papers de Demografia, 457.
GOLDIN, C. (2006): "The quiet revolution that transformed women’s employment, education and family", American Economic Review, 96.
SEVILLA-SANZ, A. (2010): "Household division of labor and cross-country differences in household formation rates", Journal of Population Economics, 23(1).
VITALI, A., and B. ARPINO (2016): "Who brings home the bacon? The influence of context on partners’ contributions to the household income", Demographic Research, 35(41).
WEST, C., and D.H. ZIMMERMANN (1987): "Doing gender", Gender & Society, 1(2).
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