The Wrong Person Is Probably Doing the Dishes in Your House

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Nov. 21 2012 8:00 AM

You’re Dividing the Chores Wrong

No, you shouldn’t always unload the dishwasher because you’re better at it.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
One person is better at every chore, including laundry, but does that mean he or she should have to do everything?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

No one likes doing chores. In happiness surveys, housework is ranked down there with commuting as  activities that people enjoy the least. Maybe that’s why figuring out who does which chores usually prompts, at best, tense discussion in a household and, at worst, outright fighting.   

Emily Oster Emily Oster

Emily Oster is an associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School. Her book is Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong. Follow her on Twitter.

If everyone is good at something different, assigning chores is easy. If your partner is great at grocery shopping and you are great at the laundry, you’re set. But this isn’t always—or even usually—the case. Often one person is better at everything. (And let’s be honest, often that person is the woman.) Better at the laundry, the grocery shopping, the cleaning, the cooking. But does that mean she should have to do everything?

Before my daughter was born, I both cooked and did the dishes. It wasn’t a big deal, it didn’t take too much time, and honestly I was a lot better at both than my husband. His cooking repertoire extended only to eggs and chili, and when I left him in charge of the dishwasher, I’d often find he had run it “full” with one pot and eight forks.

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After we had a kid, we had more to do and less time to do it in. It seemed like it was time for some reassignments. But, of course, I was still better at doing both things. Did that mean I should do them both?

I could have appealed the principle of fairness: We should each do half. I could have appealed to feminism—surveys show that women more often than not get the short end of the chore stick. In time-use data, women do about 44 minutes more housework than men (2 hours and 11 minutes versus 1 hour and 27 minutes). Men outwork women only in the areas of “lawn” and  “exterior maintenance.” I could have suggested he do more chores to rectify this imbalance, to show our daughter, in the Free To Be You and Me style, that Mom and Dad are equal and that housework is fun if we do it together! I could have simply smashed around the pans in the dishwasher while sighing loudly in the hopes he would notice and offer to do it himself.

But luckily for me and my husband, I’m an economist, so I have more effective tools than passive aggression. And some basic economic principles provided the answer. We needed to divide the chores because it is simply not efficient for the best cook and dishwasher to do all the cooking and dishwashing. The economic principle at play here is increasing marginal cost. Basically, people get worse when they are tired. When I teach my students at the University of Chicago this principle, I explain it in the context of managing their employees. Imagine you have a good employee and a not-so-good one. Should you make the good employee do literally everything? 

Usually, the answer is no. Why not? It’s likely that the not-so-good employee is better at 9 a.m. after a full night of sleep than the good employee is at 2 a.m. after a 17-hour workday. So you want to give at least a few tasks to your worse guy. The same principle applies in your household. Yes, you (or your spouse) might be better at everything. But anyone doing the laundry at 4 a.m. is likely to put the red towels in with the white T-shirts. Some task splitting is a good idea. How much depends on how fast people’s skills decay. 

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