Are Chore Wars at Home Holding You Back at Work?

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Jane is a marketing director at a technology firm, where she manages a small team, works late, and travels once per quarter. Her husband, Paul, runs his own landscaping business, which often requires working long hours six days a week. (I’ve changed their names and some details.) At the start of their marriage, four years ago, the couple agreed that because they had equally demanding jobs, they each would be responsible for certain chores around the house.

But as time went on Jane found herself doing all of the housework except for mowing the lawn. On Paul’s days off from work, Jane noticed with exasperation that he would just lie on the couch. Trying to keep up with the cleaning, cooking, and laundry each week left her with practically no free time to devote to herself, either personally or professionally. “I would feel like I was being selfish by spending that time on my career — for example, by staying late at the office to finish an important project — rather than doing something I knew needed to be done around the house,” she told me.

Jane isn’t alone — far from it. As a leadership coach, I work with many female leaders and managers on improving their time management skills and work-life balance.

Why split hairs over something as seemingly trivial as housework? Because once you hone in on exactly how many hours you’re devoting to it, you might be surprised just how much time you’re losing. By taking on too many household responsibilities while men take free time to recharge and advance their careers, women can lose sight of their priorities and fail to move ahead in areas that are most important to them.

Men have figured this out, which is why many of them aren’t raising their hands to take on more housework. Although American men today do more housework than past generations, they still aren’t doing as much as their wives. This translates directly into men having more leisure time and more time at the office, while their wives have less. Even being a breadwinner doesn’t exempt women from household chores. A 2015 study from McKinsey and LeanIn.org found that “women in senior management are seven times more likely than men at the same level to say they do more than half of the housework.” Women who outearn their husbands actually end up doing more housework than their spouses. (Note: Some studies suggest that the chore wars are an American phenomenon. Couples in other countries are sometimes more egalitarian — in France, men do more housework than women.)

Housework: Another “Sticky Floor”?

Both genders play a role in creating this predicament. It isn’t just that men are failing to step up and lighten women’s loads; a recent study from the University of Michigan shows that in heterosexual married couples, husbands are actually adding seven weekly hours of housework to their wives’ plates. Women, on the other hand, were shown to save their husbands from an hour of household chores every week. Nice of us, right? But women’s failure to recognize their own limits in the work-life juggle is one of the “sticky floors” — behaviors that can hold women back from achieving their professional goals — that I identify in my book It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor. This is because the root cause of chronic work-life imbalance can be linked to overly high standards, a reluctance to delegate, a skewed sense of loyalty, a refusal to set reasonable boundaries, or some combination of these factors:

  • Overly high standards. Those who demand perfection from themselves at work may place similar pressures on their jobs around the house. By insisting on having housework done “just right,” they may inadvertently stick themselves with the task since no one else can measure up to their level of cleanliness and detail. By bogging themselves down as “worker bees” at home and in their careers, they keep themselves too busy to focus on the bigger picture. Again, this may be an American thing — American women report spending much more time on household tasks than women in Australia, Japan, Brazil, Spain, and France, for example.
  • Skewed sense of loyalty. Some women hold themselves to high standards not out of a sense of perfectionism but because they feel that they aren’t good enough, in their roles at work or at home, and overcompensate to try to make up for their perceived shortcomings. I’ve coached many talented executive women who turn introspection and self-examination into a continuous mental loop of self-criticism. As a result, they might find themselves taking on more than their fair share of duties around the house (and lower-level tasks in the office), trying to prove that they’re a devoted wife, or mother, or worker rather than asking for what they need to accomplish their larger goals.
  • Reluctance to delegate. We all know people who struggle to delegate, but we rarely find it easy to recognize this trait in ourselves. You may think that you can “do it all,” but sorry, Superwoman: Research shows that your effectiveness declines when you overtask. Women need to be particularly cognizant of this fact since they multitask more frequently than men, and those who multitask more often have been proven to be worse at doing it.
  • Lack of reasonable boundaries. Sometimes the wife ends up doing the majority of the housework not because she’s a perfectionist or a martyr but simply because someone has to do it, and it’s easier to just do something than to nag someone else to do it. And many women are proud to be hardworking employees, spouses, and parents. But trying to serve so many “masters” at once leaves little time for themselves and their own careers. Like Jane in the example above, women can end up feeling resentful toward those who help perpetuate this pattern. “It’s gotten to the point that I sometimes outright resent my husband for being able to rest all day on the days he has off, whereas if I’m home and not doing something around the house, I somehow feel less,” explains Jane.

Banishing the “Angel in the House”

If these dysfunctions sound hauntingly familiar, it may be time to step off of your own sticky floor.

Clearly, taking on extra domestic tasks doesn’t just affect what happens at home. More time spent on minutiae means less time to take on stretch assignments, travel for business, or stay late and finish a strategic project that will help you get promoted. What I’ve come to realize through coaching clients like Jane is that for many executive women, the key to cracking the time management code at work starts at home, with something as basic as division of labor around household chores.

With this in mind, I guide the women I coach to focus on their priorities and encourage them to give themselves permission to let a few balls drop. I often repeat that it’s okay to get the resources they need, whether from family members or outsourcing, to spend more time on the things that really matter to them. While there are no easy answers to encourage women to “lean back” from housework while coaxing men to lean into it, I believe that successful resolution to the chore wars depends on effective negotiation, couple by couple; what works for one pair may leave others dissatisfied. Here are some strategies to try out with your partner:

  • Women: Give yourself permission to do what you need. When women try to be all things to all people and put themselves last, no one wins. If you’re in this situation, figure out what you want the most — a more helpful partner, a hired hand, or simply a break from the grind — and begin by asking for it without feeling guilty. You may not get what you want right away, but if you’re not even asking, you’ll never receive it.
  • Men: Step up. Many women are used to bending to their partner’s preferences, but if men can do the same, it can save their marriages.
  • Negotiate for fair, not even. While your sense of justice may push for a perfect divide between household tasks so that each spouse takes on exactly half of the burden, a study conducted by Norwegian researchers showed that couples who split housework 50/50 were more likely to divorce. The lesson is that your partner might interpret insisting on a perfect division of labor as “keeping score.” As an alternative, seek fair — but not necessarily even — task distribution so that you both feel that you are putting equal effort into the home.
  • Figure out your own form of “marriage insurance.” Tell your partner what specific actions would make the biggest difference to you — steps that would be real game changers if your spouse were to start doing these things regularly. Commit to your own form of “marriage insurance” by finding out what matters most to both of you, and see if you can find common ground to get these needs met.
  • Don’t feel guilty if you decide to hire help. To break the stalemate, some couples may opt to hire help — but be aware that this isn’t always a stress-free solution. There can still be tension about whose chores are being outsourced or how to pay for it. You may need to negotiate to find the right balance, but the bottom line is, if the stakes are too high and emotionally charged to get the work done for free — and if it’s affordable for your family to hire help to stop the chore wars — it will be worth every penny.

Relief from the chore wars can allow women to become more resilient, focused, and intentional about their most important goals — both at home and at work.


Source: HBR