Are American Husbands Slackers?

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

In the wake of the death of feminist pioneer Betty Friedan, many women’s advocates are asserting that the revolution she began is only half complete: career opportunities have opened up for women, but these careers are being undermined and sabotaged by women’s disproportionate and unfair household obligations.

Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, recently asserted that the "gender caste system is still alive and well in most of our households…The outside world has changed enormously for women in these past 40 years. But home life? Think about it. Who routinely unloads the dishwasher, puts away the laundry and picks up the socks in your house?…The answer, for a great many families, is the same as it was 50 years ago…[Friedan’s] description of the lives of women in the 1950s sounded just too much like the lives of women today." As feminist professor Linda Hirshman recently noted, "The glass ceiling begins at home."

Careers and wage-earning have certainly increased the demands on women’s time—have American men refused to hold up their end by contributing more at home? Are American husbands slackers?

Warner, Hirshman, and other feminist critics compare the work men and women do at home but fail to properly account for their disparate obligations outside the home. Census data shows that only 40% of married women with children under 18 work full-time, and over a quarter do not hold a job outside the home.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2004 Time Use Survey, men spend one and a half times as many hours working as women do, and full-time employed men still work significantly more hours than full-time employed women.

When both work outside the home and inside the home are properly considered, it is clear that men do at least as much as women. A 2002 University of Michigan Institute for Social Research survey found that women do 11 more hours of housework a week than men but men work 14 hours a week more than women. According to the BLS, men’s total time at leisure, sleeping, doing personal care activities, or socializing is a statistically meaningless 1% higher than women’s. The Families and Work Institute in New York City found that fathers now provide three-fourths as much child care as mothers do—50% more than 30 years ago.

Yet even these studies understate men’s contributions because they only count the hours devoted to a task without measuring the physical strain and/or danger associated with the task. A man doing eight hours of dangerous construction work in the 100-degree heat is credited with no more "work" than a woman who works in an air-conditioned office or who does childcare or housework in the comfort and safety of her own home (and without a supervisor breathing down her neck).

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, more than three million workers a year are treated in hospital emergency rooms for occupational injuries—the vast majority of them suffered by men. Nearly 100,000 American workers have died from job-related injuries over the past decade and a half, 95% of them men. Of the 25 most dangerous jobs listed by the U.S. Department of Labor, all of them are between 90 percent and 100 percent male.

The sacrifices made by men like Terry Helms, one of the 12 miners killed in the Sago Mine disaster last month, are unrecorded in the studies. Terry’s son Nick told the Associated Press that his father "had endured numerous injuries in a 30-year career and hated mining because of the dangers."

"[My father] is very selfless," Nick said. "[He] refused to quit because the job put food on the table…He gave his life in there so I could go to the movies."

It is true, as Warner and Hirshman assert, that work outside the home is often more interesting than work done in the home. Yet it is also true that work done in the home—particularly time spent with one’s children when they are young—is often more satisfying than wage work.

Feminists’ persistent criticism of men has combined with women’s traditional expectations of their husbands to place men in a double bind. A man may be a devoted caretaker of his children or a talented cook, but if he is unable to provide for his family, he is not respected. Yet when a man works long hours to fulfill the breadwinner role which he is still expected to perform, he is blamed for not contributing as much at home as his wife does.

Feminists are right to complain that with long work weeks, the high cost of child care, scant union protections, and inflexible workplaces, working women often face a trying juggling act. But they’re wrong to place the blame on husbands, who do their fair share and often make great sacrifices to provide for their wives and children.