Who does what when couples swap roles?
A growing body of research has attempted to understand the gender gap in the allocation of family and work roles. Research points to couples who arrange work and family roles non-normatively as drivers of change in gender division of labour. Because those family arrangements are so recent and rare, little is known about the daily routines of those couples
My co-author (Dr Ruth Gaunt) and I conducted one of the first studies on British couples who reverse traditional family roles. Our aim was to understand how these couples share tasks at home, and how it compares to the more traditional division of roles in couples (a primary caregiving mother and a breadwinning father).
We examined four different types of tasks:
- Housework (e.g. cooking, cleaning, laundry)
- Physical care (e.g. feeding, dressing, bathing, putting to bed)
- Emotional care (e.g. playing, helping with social/emotional problems)
- Responsibility (e.g. planning activities, choosing day-care, taking to the doctor)
Who does what when couples swap roles?
One of the questions we asked was whether caregiver and breadwinner parents are involved in similar housework and childcare activities. What we found was that caregiving fathers and mothers both engaged in similar levels of housework and physical childcare. Caregiving mothers, however, did more of the emotional care and management/responsibility than caregiving fathers. When we compared breadwinning parents, we found that overall, breadwinning mothers were more involved in housework and childcare than breadwinning fathers.
Do mothers and fathers have different experiences in the role of breadwinner?
When compared to fathers in the same role, mothers are more involved in organising and managing the day-to-day activities than fathers. As we know, women are often the managers that coordinate, organise and have an overview of what needs to be done at home. This aspect of motherhood appears to be present around the world. For example, my co-author’s latest book tells the story of 25 couples all over the world who equally share housework and childcare, and it also reveals that it is easier for couples to share the day-to-day aspects of parenting than the overall mental and emotional responsibility.
Breadwinning mothers’ high involvement in the management of childcare can possibly be explained by the different nature of those tasks. While housework and physical care are routine daily tasks which often cannot be postponed and require an immediate involvement, the overall responsibility for managing and coordinating care does not always require immediate presence. Therefore, men can take over childcare and housework when their wives are at work and that change might not be enough to really shift the ultimate responsibility for childcare. Furthermore, other studies have also shown that breadwinning mothers and fathers see their roles differently. For example, breadwinning fathers might feel only accountable for providing financially, and feel lower expectations to spend time with their children compared to breadwinning mothers.
What's the main lesson from the study?
Couples where the father is the caregiver and the mother is the breadwinner are defying pressures to conform to conventional images of motherhood and fatherhood. They are performing tasks according to their family role, rather than gender norms. They help us understand how gender differences in family life can be minimised and what aspects are harder to change.
Dr Mariana Pinho, Research Fellow
Eleanor Glanville Centre
 Pinho, M. & Gaunt, R. A. (2019). Doing and undoing gender in male carer/female breadwinner families, Community, Work and Family.
 Deutsch, F. M. & Gaunt, R. A. (2020). Creating equality at home: How 25 couples around the globe share housework and childcare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Mariana Pinho is a Research Fellow at the Eleanor Glanville Centre (EGC). She holds a PhD in Psychology and her research interests include social psychology of gender, work and family and equality, diversity and inclusion.
Ruth Gaunt is an Associate Professor in Social Psychology at the University of Lincoln, UK. She received her PhD in Psychology at Tel-Aviv University, and has held post-doctoral fellowships at both University of Louvain and Harvard University, and the Marie Curie Fellowship at University of Cambridge. Her research applies a social psychological approach to the study of gender, families and employment.