Though men and women in opposite-sex marriages increasingly earn similar amounts of money, each making between 40% and 60% of the income, women are still doing most of the housework and caregiving, while men spend more time on paid work and leisure activities.

That’s according to a new report from Pew Research Center, released Thursday, that echoes a pattern that’s been seen for some time.

Women are doing more caregiving and household work even when they are the breadwinners, meaning they earn more than 60% of a couple’s income. That remains true when women earn about as much as their husbands. It’s also true when men earn the bulk of or all the marriage’s income.

The only exception is when the woman is the only wage earner. In that case, her husband is likely to do more in terms of caregiving and home chores, making the workload at home more evenly balanced, said Richard Fry, a senior researcher at Pew who co-wrote the report.

Men, however, are still the primary or only breadwinner in 55% of families, down from 85% a half century ago. Men are the sole breadwinner in 23% of marriages, compared to 49% in 1972. That number has been pretty stable since 1992, the researchers said, noting the decline was driven “as women streamed into the labor force.”

Women’s labor force participation went up a lot in the 1970s and 1980s, peaking around 1999. It decreased a bit after that, said Fry. “Married women are not participating in the labor force at greater rates than they were two decades ago,” he noted.

But the share of couples in egalitarian marriages — where both spouses earn roughly the same amount of money — has nearly tripled to 29% from 1972. The share of marriages where the wife is the sole or primary breadwinner has increased from 5% in the past 50 years to 16%. Only 6% of marriages have women as the only wage earner, and women are the primary earner in 10% of marriages today.

Women breadwinners

Among women, those most likely to be the breadwinner in their marriage are Black women, college graduates, women between ages 55 and 64 and those who do not have children at home.

Childless women are more likely to be breadwinners than women actively raising children at home, Fry said.

He said that when a wife has more formal education than her husband, she’s more likely to be the breadwinner. “What’s happening over time, in opposite-sex marriages,” said Fry, “is we have a growing number of marriages where wives are better educated than their husband.”

Fry described as “kind of surprising” the fact that older wives, ages 55 to 64, are “significantly more likely to be the breadwinner compared to younger wives.” Among older wives, it’s 22% compared to 1 in 10 as the breadwinner among young wives 25 to 34. 

“There might be a supposition a younger cohort is less likely to have what I will call ‘traditional’ arrangements,” Fry said. “That’s not what’s happening.”

“Having younger children really changes the breadwinning likelihood,” he said, while most women 55 to 64 don’t have young children at home.

“We know that as you age, as you get more years in the labor market and more seniority, wages go up,” Fry said. “It’s clear in this data that a wife who makes $100,000 is more likely to be a breadwinner than one who earns $25,000.”

Richard J. Petts, a sociology professor at Ball State University who was not associated with the Pew report, notes research has shown that for most families, at some point over a woman’s life course, she will be the primary breadwinner. That aligns, he noted, with what Pew found.

Of the differences in the women who are more likely to be breadwinners, he sees few surprises. Black women have a long history of work, often out of necessity. And that the college-educated are more likely to be egalitarian “makes sense to me,” he said. 

But Fry emphasizes the report captures a point in time and what the future holds does not lend itself to clear prediction, including whether an imbalance between men and women in education will continue. And while couples’ relative education matters, other factors matter as well, he said.

What we value

As part of the report, the Pew asked 5,152 U.S. adults who are part of its American Trends panel what they believe society values when it comes to earnings and gender roles. The poll was conducted in mid-January.

The survey didn’t ask what men and women value in their own marriage, but rather their assumptions about what society wants.

Most Americans believe society values men’s contributions at work and their earning ability more than what they contribute at home. The report says just 7% believe others value what men do at home more than what they do at work, while just over a third say men’s contributions are valued about equally at work and home.

While it was not part of Pew’s research, Fry said other credible researchers and economists have found that marriages may be less stable and marital satisfaction lower when the wife is the breadwinner, Fry said. “That tends to be particularly true when husbands are less educated. The thinking is it’s an accepted gender norm.”

About half of the adults said women’s contributions at home and work have about equal value. Just over 3 in 10 say women’s contributions at home are more valued, while 20% say their contributions at work are valued more than what they do at home.

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Fry said that as couples are making decisions about how much time to devote to the workplace and how best to get their chores done at home, they do what works for them.

Pew’s survey also asked what division of paid work and work at home is best for children.

There, the answer was overwhelmingly a belief that it’s better for kids if both parents are “equally focused on work and home,” at 77%. Just under 1 in 5 said dads should focus on work and moms on home.

The report doesn’t look at a trend on time use, either, but instead provides a snapshot, he said.

Women’s work?

Petts believes people “feel pretty comfortable” with the idea that women need to work and even that their earnings should be more comparable to men’s, but notes the public in general doesn’t seem to support gender equality in the domestic sphere. Research he was part of in recent years “saw a host of more traditional gender attitudes: Moms should be permanently responsible for the house. Moms shouldn’t work when kids are young.” They also found that most believe women do have to work. Otherwise life is not affordable.

Daniel L. Carlson, an associate professor in family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, has also noted those pervasive perspectives. He wasn’t part of the Pew research, either.

“Those trends in the sense that paid work has become more equal, but unpaid work — child care and housework — remain women’s responsibility tracks pretty well with people’s attitudes,” he said.

Carlson noted a “very ingrained belief that domestic labor, child care especially and also housework, is just a woman’s domain. If they want a career and they want to work for pay, that’s great. But it doesn’t mean they get to give up those contextual responsibilities.”

That belief, he noted, is not male-imposed; a large share of both men and women hold it.

He said research by family sociologist Joanna Pepin, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, and others suggests that “people are absolutely fine with women having careers and with equality in the public sphere, but they feel that should not come at the cost of their conventional responsibilities for housework.”

Carlson noted little change in housework division of labor in recent decades — “and even what movement did occur was really women giving up the time they were spending. Things got more equal because women were doing less, not because men were doing more.”

He said working women sometimes skip or outsource tasks. “So you hire cleaning services or eat out more or send out your laundry or buy wrinkle-free Dockers so you don’t have to iron,” he said. 

That also tracks with child care, he said. Women who can afford it use it if they work. If they can’t afford it, as the pandemic showed, women quit their jobs. “Child care is seen as a support for mothers, not for the family,” he added.

Petts said he’s a bit perplexed about why, if women are working more, men are not doing more at home to compensate. “I would think it would start to change over time, but change has been slow, incremental,” he said. 

There’s no penalty if men don’t do more at home. If women are neglecting family or the house is in disarray, said Petts, they are more likely to be judged and “perceived as bad moms.”

Carlson suspects that what seem to be contradictory attitudes are “also part and parcel of the fact that people are rationalizing the need for women to work. If you’re a couple, you’re really not going to achieve middle class unless you’re in a dual-earner household.”

“Men cannot support their families on their own like they used to, so they have become open to women working, but it also creates an internal contradiction with the belief that women should care for the home,” he said.

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“The system is designed around the fact that women provide free care and are the caretakers,” Carlson said. “That’s not just an at-home attitude, but also in the workforce, where businesses operate on the assumption that the ideal worker should always be available to work and does not have other obligations outside the job.”

Carlson said it creates an odd situation when “we penalize women for having care responsibilities we don’t want them to give up.”

He believes policy supports like paid leave and flexible schedules would make it easier for households and both men and women to have the two incomes they need and also take care of their responsibilities at home. The two should not be at war.

All of the questions in the Pew research focused on opposite-sex couples. The earnings data the center used came from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. Details on how couples use their time came from the American Time Use Survey. Besides Fry, the Pew Research Center report authors are Carolina Aragao, Kiley Hurst and Kim Parker.

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