50/50: the equal couples

A new book says men should do half the housework and childcare, and let women go out to work. Are we all ready for this?

Illustration: Eoin Coveney

Illustration: Eoin Coveney


Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, might not be everybody’s lifestyle guru of choice, but she’s probably right about this: “We continue to believe that men can have both a successful professional life and a fulfilling personal life, while many of us buy into the widespread assumption that trying to do both as a woman is difficult at best and impossible at worst.”

She’s also right about this one: “Men doing half the childcare and housework makes so much more possible for women, giving them greater choices and flexibility. And the bonus of men doing their share is not just felt by women, but extends to the men themselves and their children.”

It makes perfect sense, but mucking in with half the toilet-cleaning, half the nappy-changing and half of the children’s trips to the dentist doesn’t, in the words of Kelis, seem to have brought many of the boys to the yard.

In the US, a 2009 survey reported that 9 per cent of people in dual-earner marriages said they shared housework, childcare and breadwinning evenly. Nine per cent.

It is a figure that a new book, Getting to 50/50: How Working Parents Can Have It All, by Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober, would like to change. Men should listen up, they say. Doing half of the housework and childcare in a two-job household will improve your sex life. It will also decrease your risk of divorce.

The US sociologist Lynn Prince Cooke has found that in sole-male-breadwinner households where the man did no housework, the odds of divorce were 13 per cent higher than average. In households where employment and housework were shared 50/50, the rate of divorce was 48 per cent lower than average. She didn’t ask how often they had sex.

In the US, Meers and Strober, both married mothers with high-powered jobs, are notching up another career success with their bestselling book. It would be easy to be irritated by the ease with which they navigate the corporate and domestic worlds. But beneath their uninclusive use of the term “husband” to describe every woman’s coparent, they make many valid points.

Childcare or mother’s care, for example. Which is best for baby? Any woman who has left her child anywhere in anyone’s care while she went to work is going to be relieved at their answer. A study of 1,364 newborns, conducted by the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, that started in 1991 and ended when they were 15, in 2006, found that children in 100 per cent maternal care scored no higher on any measure than those in childcare.

Maternal attachment wasn’t harmed, either. Nor did children who started in childcare before they were a year old have worse results. All this, and an acknowledgment that most of them were not in childcare that met the minimum caregiver-to- child ratios of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The authors come down hard on workplaces that fail to support women who return after a break to have a baby: “No one ever asks men: ‘Are you going back to work after the baby is born?’ ”

They are highly critical of the effective taxation of mothers who work. By the age of 45 a mother of two will have earned 25 per cent less than her female peer with no children. “Women do not realise the enormous price they pay for gender wage discrimination because they do not see big bites taken out of their paychecks.”

In Ireland, from the early 1930s to the early 1970s, the marriage bar ejected women from the paid labour market as soon as they took that first step down the aisle. The bar was abolished in 1973, but it has arguably been replaced with a maternity bar: there is still a marked difference in the employment rates of women who have children.

CSO figures from 2011 show that 85.7 per cent of women without children were employed, slightly more than the percentage of men. But women whose youngest child was under three were less likely to work, with just 57 per cent in the workplace compared with 79 per cent of men.

For women whose youngest child was aged between four and five, the employment rate was even lower, with 51.5 per cent in employment compared with almost three-quarters of men. Once their youngest child had reached six the employment rate among women rose to 58 per cent, compared with 77 per cent of men.

Many women are choosing to leave their workplaces when they have children. Our nation prizes the right of mothers to ply their trade in the marital home. We have embedded that right in the Constitution.

What Meers and Strober are asking is: Why women? Why not both of you? Then every part of your lives will have to get an equality overhaul: the vacuuming, the cooking, the toilet-cleaning, the sex. There is no domestic activity women can do that men can’t.

The authors may raise hackles with their overconcentration on those lucky enough to have “careers” rather than “jobs”. A recent survey of US social and demographic trends by Pew Research found a strong correlation between financial wellbeing and views about the ideal work situation. Of women who say they “don’t even have enough to meet basic expenses”, 47 per cent say the ideal situation for them is to work full time. By contrast, only 31 per cent of women who claim to live comfortably say working full time is their ideal.

Marital status is also strongly linked to views about the ideal work situation, and the gap in views between married and unmarried mothers has widened significantly. Among unmarried mothers, 49 per cent say working full time would be their ideal. Only 23 per cent of married mothers today say that would be their ideal situation.

The Irish experience
In Ireland we have a similar experience. The ways men and women work here are very different. CSO figures from 2011 show the average working week for a woman was 30.6 hours, compared with 39 hours for a man. Three times as many women worked part time – 29 hours or less – than men. It’s hard not to conclude that more mothers than fathers choose to work part time.

Women make that choice, for a variety of reasons. They might think it makes sense for work to take a back seat because they won’t earn as much as a man: statistically, they’re probably right. They might also assume they will care better for their children, but they might be wrong.

Meers and Strober have introduced the radical-to-some notion that women need to let go of the conditioning that makes them want to control the domestic realm. “Women need to work more so men can work less,” they say. Their logic is that if women work more, the world of work can’t but change. Men can dust, you know. And if they can’t, who cares, if the sex is great?

Getting to 50/50: How Working Couples Can Have It All is published by Piaktus

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