Women’s work and hottie theory


[image credit: the Gallery of Regrettable Food]

The New York Times reports on a survey that went a step further than the usual time-use surveys. The researchers asked not just “How did you spend your time today?” but also “How did you feel during these activities?”

The one stand-out difference between men and women?

Men apparently enjoy being with their parents, while women find time with their mom and dad to be slightly less pleasant than doing laundry.

My instant reaction was that the result is not surprising at all. Not only are women generally expected to do the majority of the emotional work with extended family, but they’re also typically expected to do the vast majority of the domestic work at family gatherings. What might sound like fun to blokes who stand around the barbecue and drink beer and chat about footy while engaging in a cookie-grab for “doing all the cooking”[1] is a bit less fun for the women in the kitchen preparing the meat, making the salads, setting out and serving, clearing away, and washing up, all while minding the children.


[image credit: the Gallery of Regrettable Food]

Sure enough, the Times goes on:

Alan Krueger, a Princeton economist working with four psychologists on the time-use research team, figures that there is a simple explanation for the difference. For a woman, time with her parents often resembles work, whether it’s helping them pay bills or plan a family gathering. “For men, it tends to be sitting on the sofa and watching football with their dad,” said Mr. Krueger, who, when not crunching data, enjoys watching the New York Giants with his father.

The article goes on to further explore the “happiness gap”, linking it to notions of the second shift, but offering some alternate explanations including women having a much longer to-do list and just plain feeling more inadequate nowadays when that to-do list doesn’t get done. Oh boy, I can relate to that one. The happiness gap starts in high school, and one of the U.Penn. economists cited for this data, Betsey Stevenson, mentions her “hottie theory”:

It’s based on an April article in this newspaper by Sara Rimer, about a group of incredibly impressive teenage girls in Newton, Mass. The girls were getting better grades than the boys, playing varsity sports, helping to run the student government and doing community service. Yet one girl who had gotten a perfect 2,400 on her college entrance exams noted that she and her friends still felt pressure to be “effortlessly hot.”

As Ms. Stevenson, who’s 36, said: “When I was in high school, it was clear being a hottie was the most important thing, and it’s not that it’s any less important today. It’s that other things have become more important. And, frankly, people spent a lot of time trying to be a hottie when I was in high school. So I don’t know where they find the time today.”

Also of note? This article was published in the “Economic Scene” section, not a pink-branded “For Chicks Only!” insert. Goodonyer, Times, I hope some other papers follow suit.

While we’re on the gendering of domestic work, check out brooklynite’s musings on family life in a non-traditional structure, and the ways in which gender-role socialisation can be hard to break away from even in a “reversed” SAHD/WOHM family.

[1] Yes, I know you’re all exceptions. But you can’t pretend this isn’t a well-worn pattern of family behaviour.



Categories: economics, gender & feminism, relationships, work and family

Tags: , ,

9 replies

  1. While I’m certainly less happy when I visit my parents than any of my brothers, this linguist at upenn is skeptical.

  2. I sort of agree with the linguist. My reaction was: were the questions specific enough? Just how wide is this “gap”? Did the survey account for factors such a-less-than-warm relationship with the parents, or people’s different personalties, etc? I always feel a bit leery of these quick “surveys”.
    On the other hand, Lauredhel has a good point about women having to do all the real work in a large family gathering.

  3. My instant reaction after reading that was: “Of course. Men go back home and are treated wonderfully, like the baby is back, while women are lectured on why aren’t their lives better”.
    Maybe I’m reading too much of my own personal experience into this, BUT I do believe one thing to be true for everybody: “no mother has ever been entirely pleased with her daughter. There is always room for criticism.”
    Your idea of the housework AND the emotional work didn’t occur to me, but it does make a lot of sense. So, thank you for making me think about it.

  4. Well I wish said linguist had devoted all that energy to applying these principles to some of the proliferation of ev-psych and neurological-sex-difference articles that abound, instead of on Dr Krueger, who actually seems to have a clue.
    When men go home to see their parents they still get to treat their mothers as servants, whereas the women have become the servants. This has provoked more than a few rankles in my family, I must say, especially when my brother found one of the plates put out on the table was dirty and tried to HAND IT TO ME to go and replace it with a clean one. “Do you even know where the kitchen is, sir? Because it’s behind you, where it’s been for the last twenty years.” Or the time my mother thought she would praise me for laying the table nicely by announcing to the family how apparent it was that women are naturally better at this sort of work, as if the fact that I was taught to do it every day for years, while my brother watched television would have nothing to do with having acquired superior skills in that area. Unfortunately, during that conversation I accidentally used the word “menial”, which didn’t go down too well as an implied description of everything my mother has devoted her life to. But I am descending into the anecdotal – forgive me.

  5. Once again I’m grateful for my exceptional parents, with whom I would far rather spend time than do laundry. Who always expected my brother and me to help (sometimes with different things, as my mum didn’t trust my brother with sharp things, which was entirely sensible and born from experience), who hardly ever critisise me, and who are great fun to hang out with even if we’re doing work together (and actually I love doing work-type-things with my dad).
    And I don’t believe my brother ever, ever treated our mum like a servant. She would have laughed at him.

  6. It looks like another sloppy study about gender differences being made to look more definitive than it really is.
    I guess I’m a statistical anomaly again… when my parents were living, I enjoyed spending time with them. They were laid-back, non-judgmental, and made a point of not hassling me. The in-laws are another kettle of fish entirely! (Though, to be fair, my husband isn’t happy around them either.)
    When it comes to hours spent doing unpleasant tasks, I can easily believe women are in the lead. But to prove that you would need much better data than what we see here.

  7. More anecdotal-ness.
    I too, as the girl-child was taught to cook, clean, fold the clothes, set the table, etc etc.
    My brother somehow managed to do the odd carrot-grating.
    Oddly enough, my parents always justified this, to me, and to themselves as “Laurie is older”, rather than “Laurie is a girl”.
    And yet, even after I had left home and only boy-child was around, he somehow was not expected to learn the fine art of the table setting.

  8. Well I wish said linguist had devoted all that energy to applying these principles to some of the proliferation of ev-psych and neurological-sex-difference articles that abound
    Actually, he has devoted quite a lot of energy to just that task.

  9. Cool. Thanks Stentor, these are really interesting.

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