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Domestic Technologies as Time Savers?
January 28, 2008, 5:53 pm
Filed under: 2008

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Since Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s pioneering book, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (1985) there have been a series of studies on the gendered division of household labor:

Statistics Canada studies. Here’s an overview by Katherine Marshall in Perspectives on Labor and Income (July 2006).

The proportion of those doing some housework daily, be it making sandwiches for lunch, vacuuming, or taking out the garbage, increased from 72% in 1986 to 79% in 2005. However, this increase is entirely attributable to men, whose participation rose from 54% to 69%, while women’s remained steady at around 90%. Changes in the daily participation rate for core housework (meal preparation, meal clean-up, indoor cleaning, and laundry) are the most noticeable—40% to 59% for men, and 88% to 85% for women.

Even though the proportion of people doing housework of some kind has increased, the amount of time spent at it has decreased (from an average of 2.7 hours per day in 1986 to 2.5 hours per day in 2005).

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All of the decrease comes from core housework. Labour-saving devices such as dishwashers, and semi-prepared or pre-packaged food items (such as pre-washed bags of salad, already peeled carrots, or frozen dinners) as well as numerous take-out options, may be helping to cut down the time spent in kitchens.

Still, given the trend toward ever bigger homes,3 it seems puzzling to witness a reduction in time spent on housework. Canadians are not alone in this; a remarkably similar trend has been observed in the United States. Between 1975 and 1995 the average weekly hours Americans spent on housework dropped from 15.5 to 13.7. Furthermore, “women’s and men’s hours spent in housework have converged over the period, primarily due to the steep decline in women’s hours of housework” (Bianchi et al. 2000). One reason for the overall decline could be today’s service-oriented economy. From take-out meals to snow removal, groundskeeping and housecleaning, people buy many goods and services once produced in the home. Housework standards may also be falling and people are less bothered if their house fails the ‘white-glove’ dust test. In the same vein, people’s priorities may have changed as to how they want to spend their time (Bianchi et al. 2000).
Bianchi, Suzanne M., Melissa A. Milkie, Liana C. Sayer and John P. Robinson. 2000. “Is anyone doing the housework? Trends in the gender division of household labor.” Social Forces 79, no.1 (September): 191-228.

And another, published by the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in 2003, Appliances and their Impact: The Ownership of Domestic Technology and Time Spent on Household Work by Michael Bittman, James Mahmud Rice, and Judy Wacjman. It looks at the 1997 Australian Time Use Survey which investigates, among other things, time spent on domestic work…revealing that domestic technology “rarely reduced women’s unpaid working time and even, paradoxically, produces some increases in domestic labour. The domestic division of labour by gender remains remarkably resistant to technological innovation”

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