October 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 5 // Research in Brief // 5RIB1

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The Domestic Labor Puzzle: Meaning and Emotion

It is hypothesized that domestic labor inequality produces negative emotions among dual-earner wives. However, researchers are puzzled to find that the majority of wives don't report negative emotion. This paper examines the meaning domestic labor has to women and how it influences their emotion. A cluster analysis was conducted using three measures: domestic labor as part of the wives self-identity, importance of equality, and fairness of the division. The analysis shows that when meaning is considered, visible connections emerge between the division of labor and emotions regarding inequality. Meaning may be the missing piece to resolving the domestic labor puzzle.

JoLene B. Bunnell
Extension 4-H Youth Agent
Utah State University
Utah County
Provo, Utah
Internet address: joleneb@ext.usu.edu

Ivan F. Beutler
Department of Family Sciences
Brigham Young University
Provo, Utah
Internet address: ivan_beutler@byu.edu


The area of domestic labor including managing the home, ways to clean and keep up the home, and work load simplification has a long history in home economics-related Extension programs. A slightly different issue regarding work in the home has emerged in recent decades as more women have taken on greater responsibility for employment outside the home (Dolan, 1987), but most husbands have failed to balance that shift with a proportional increase in responsibility for the domestic labor (Thompson, 1991). Although a gradual increase in men's domestic labor participation has been reported (Gershuny, 1988), even among dual earner, childless couples, most husbands continue to do less than their wives (Marshall, 1990).

Family scholars anticipated that this imbalance would result in widespread negative emotion among wives (Goldner, 1988). Certainly, intense negative emotions have been reported by a some wives (Hochschild, 1989), but research has indicated that only about one out of three wives feel that the division of labor in their marriage is unfair (Benin, 1988) and even fewer report having negative emotions regarding the inequality in division of domestic labor (Gershuny & Robinson, 1988). Surprisingly, data from national samples have consistently failed to link negative emotions with domestic labor inequality (Booth, Johnson, White, & Edwards 1984).

This paper addresses what is referred to here as the domestic labor puzzle--that is, why do some women experience negative emotion regarding domestic labor inequality and others do not? To address this question, meanings associated with domestic labor are examined as a way to better understand possible connections between domestic labor division and emotional outcomes regarding that labor. The particular focus of this paper is on connections between the latter two dimensions: (a) meaning--regarding domestic labor, and (b) affect--in terms of emotional outcomes associated with that labor.

Three aspects of meaning regarding domestic labor as reported by wives are specifically considered in the research presented here: (a) self-identity, (b) equality importance, and (c) fairness. These three aspects of meaning are treated as dimensions, each of which may take on different possible values, so the pattern of domestic labor meaning for a given wife is contingent on her particular combination of meanings within the three dimensions.

Self-identity is the first dimension considered. It is defined as the extent to which a wife feels domestic labor is important to her sense of purpose, is a high priority, is a meaningful way to show she cares, is an essential function in her home, and a means of self expression. Despite recent changes in gender roles, it is still generally assumed that women will identify with domestic work as a part of who they are (0akley, 1974).

Equality importance, the second aspect of domestic labor meaning, is defined as the extent to which the wife considers domestic labor equality to be important. Equality deals with the relative contribution judged against an ideal standard taken to be a 50-50 split (Thompson, 1991). Although equity rules have been considered as a way to judge fairness (Scanzoni & Polonko, 1980), the importance of equality as an aspect of meaning does not seem to have been considered in previous research.

A third aspect of domestic labor meaning is fairness defined here in terms of the wife's perception of the degree of fairness in the division of domestic labor. Fairness has emerged as a salient variable in previous literature. Unfairness has been reported to correlate with negative emotion. Yet surprisingly few couples view lopsided labor division in their relationship as being unfair (Benin & Agnostinelli, 1988). Marshall (1990) found positive correlation between lack of fairness and negative emotions, but not between domestic labor inequality and fairness, or between domestic labor inequality and negative emotions.

Two additional measures were used to assist in verification analysis of the above three meaning variables. Thompson (1991) concludes that for many women it is the appreciation and responsiveness of others, especially husbands, that really matter in family work. Appreciation refers to the degree of grateful recognition; responsiveness refers to the husband's readiness to pitch in and help.


Meaning patterns among dual-earner, childless couples were chosen for examination in the research reported here to minimize issues associated with child care and unequal employment participation between spouses (Marshall, 1990). Data were obtained using a survey with items adapted from (a) Hochschild's (1989) research that lead to The Second Shift, (b) the National Survey of Families and Households (Center for Demography and Econology, 1988), and (c) additional items developed specifically for this study.

A snowball sampling technique was used (Chadwick, Bahr, & Albrecht, 1984), beginning with dual-earner couples with whom the authors were acquainted, and then expanded as respondents identified additional dual-earner, childless couples. Survey instruments were distributed in two areas; northern Utah and southern California. As additional potential respondents were identified, surveys were sent by mail with a personal letter of instruction and an invitation to participate. Only questionnaires completed by both spouses were eligible for analysis. Data collection was conducted between June and October 1991, and an 81.1 percent response rate resulted in 146 completed surveys.

The volunteer respondents qualified for this study if they were married, childless, and each spouse was employed or attending school in some combination to equal being out of the home "at least 35 hours each week." All the wives in the sample were employed to some degree; 68 percent worked full-time, the remainder had some kind of education/work combination.

In order to be more representative of the U.S. population a quota sample (Chadwick, Bahr, & Albrecht 1984) was selected from the 146 completed surveys. Quota selection was used to achieve an operational sample that was adjusted to more closely match the dual-earner couples from the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH--a 1987-88 probability sample) on the basis of three parameters--age, education, and income with a discrepancy range of not more than 10 percent. After the quota sample was achieved, 118 surveys out of the original 146 qualified for the analysis. In comparison with the NSFH sample, the snowball sample was slightly younger (mean age 25.1 years versus the NSFH 27.5 years), had a lower mean income ($38,900 versus $41,800), and had slightly more years of schooling (4.37 versus 4.1, 4 = some college).

The measures for this study were developed in five groups: (a) demographics--wives' age, wives' education, and family income; (b) domestic labor division based on husband responses and wife responses regarding hours each of them typically spent per week in domestic labor; (c) wives' negative emotion regarding domestic labor; (d) wives' domestic labor meaning--self identity, equality importance, and fairness; and (e) wives' perception of their husbands' appreciation and responsiveness.


Data were analyzed using SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) software, frequency distributions were examined for each variable, and five domestic labor meaning patterns/cluster groups were derived using cluster analysis based on the patterns of response to three standardized variables--self identity, equality importance, and fairness. Validity of the cluster solution was checked by testing for the presence of significant differences (ANOVAs) between the clusters on two external variables reported in the literature--appreciation and responsiveness (Aldenderfer & Blashfield, 1984).

An overview of the analysis performed to indicate the relationship between the three major variables is shown in Table 1. Each wife under study was placed into one of the five cluster groups. Then the level of inequality experienced and a measure of negative emotion experienced were calculated for wives in each of the five meaning cluster groups. For purposes of analysis, the five meaning groups were placed in ascending order according to the level of inequality experienced (very low, low, medium, high, and very high). Based on the literature of previous research, it was hypothesized that emotional outcome would not be correlated with level of inequality experienced. Rather emotional outcome was expected to be arranged in a scrambled order (e.g. illustrated in Table 1 as positive, negative, very positive, very positive, and very negative). This analysis was designed to ascertain if an understanding of the pattern of wives domestic labor meaning (the center variable Table 1) would serve as a coherent and insightful connection between the division of domestic labor (the variable on the left) and her emotional outcome (the variable on the right).

Table 1
Domestic Labor Division,
Meaning Pattern Connection,
Emotional Outcome
Domestic Labor
Inequality Experienced
Meaning Patterns/
Cluster Group
Very Low Pattern/Cluster A
Egalitarian Couples
Low Pattern/Cluster D
Conflicted Couples
Medium Pattern/Cluster E
Quasi-Traditional Couples
Very Positive
High Pattern/Cluster B
Traditional Couples
Very Positive
Very High Pattern/Cluster C
Unsynchronized Couples
Very Negative

Findings and Discussion

The analysis is organized around the five cluster group domestic labor meaning patterns (see Table 2). Each of the five cluster groups is labeled with a one-word description chosen to describe the labor division/meaning pattern for that cluster. The variables under focus in Table 2 are: (a)the percent of total sample size within each cluster; (b) the percent of wives reporting high domestic labor inequality (wife contributed more than 60% of the combined husband and wife domestic labor); (c) the meaning cluster components of self-identity, equality unimportance, and fairness, with a designation of L=Low when the cluster group score was below the entire sample fifty percentile score, and H=high--when the cluster group score was at or above the entire sample fifty percentile score.

Table 2
Meaning Pattern/Cluster Group Connection
Between Domestic Labor
Inequality and Negative Emotion
for Childless, Dual Earner Couples
18.6% 37.3% 13.6% 16.9% 13.6%
(wives reporting more than 60% of total)
18.2% 72.7% 87.6% 20.0% 50.0%
Meaning Pattern/Cluster Group Variable Components
(L = low/H = high Meaning Score)
Self-Identity L H L L L
Fairness H H L L H
(wives reporting negative emotion about inequality)
18.2% 13.6% 62.5% 30.0% 12.5%

For cluster A (labeled Egalitarian), a relatively low percent (18.2%) of wives reported domestic labor inequality, importance to self identity was low (L) indicating that the wives of this cluster did not consider domestic labor to be important to their sense of self-identity, equality unimportance was low (L) indicating that labor division equality was definitely important to the wives of this cluster, and fair division was high (H) indicating that division of domestic labor between them and their husbands seemed fair. In short, their division of labor life style and their pattern of domestic labor meaning seemed to be egalitarian. Note how a low percent of wives experiencing domestic labor inequality (18.2%) are matched with a low percent reporting high negative emotion (18.2%).

The domestic labor meaning pattern associated with this cluster adds further insight. Egalitarian cluster wives did not report high negative emotion associated with domestic labor because according to the three meaning components, things were going well -- equality was important to them and each felt that the labor division with their spouse was fair.

For cluster D (labeled Conflicted) wives indicated that their domestic labor arrangement was unfair (fair division = L), which seems to conflict with the rest of their response pattern--they did not consider domestic labor to be important to their self-identity (importance to self-identity = L), equality was not important to them (equality unimportance was H), and they did not report a high degree of domestic labor inequality in their marriages.

However, wives in the Traditional (cluster B) group experienced a high degree of domestic labor inequality (72.7%), yet they indicated that domestic labor was important to their self-identity, that their domestic labor division was fair, and that domestic labor equality was unimportant to them. The traditional group experienced minimal levels of negative emotion (13.6%). The Quasi-Traditional (cluster F) is quite similar to the Traditional Group in the fact that they experience higher inequality and their negative emotion is low. The only variable that is different is that domestic labor is not tied to part of their self-identity.

In comparing meaning patterns, traditional cluster wives perfectly contrast the unsynchronized (cluster C) wives, yet the division of labor within the two groups is very similar. Unsynchronized cluster wives and husbands seem out-of-step with each other. The husbands participate in domestic labor minimally as if their wives had traditional values when in fact quite the opposite is the case as indicated by the wives meaning pattern. Clearly, traditional and quasi-traditional wives experienced the least negative emotion and unsynchronized cluster wives experienced an enormous amount, with 62.5% of them reporting high negative emotion. With the measures of inequality, meaning patterns, and negative emotion that are presented for each cluster group in Table 2 it is possible to piece together the connection between domestic labor division and emotional outcomes.

On the inequality/negative emotion premise, it would be expected that the quasi-traditional, traditional, and unsynchronized cluster wives (all with higher percentages of inequality) would also respectively report an escalating percent of high negative emotion. However, this premise has not been verified in previous research (Hochschild, 1989) and is not borne out here either.

Instead of high negative emotion the quasi-traditional and traditional cluster groups have the lowest percent of wives (12.5% and 13.6%) reporting negative emotion with regard to domestic labor. Even though half of the quasi-traditional cluster wives were experiencing high inequality only one-eighth of them reported high negative emotion, a result that is more understandable in light of the fact that domestic labor division equality was unimportant to these wives and they felt their labor division was fair.

Compared to the quasi-traditional cluster nearly 50% more of the Traditional cluster wives (72.7%) were experiencing high inequality, yet only 1.1 percent more of them (for a total of 13.6%) reported negative emotion outcomes. No doubt this lack of response in terms of negative emotion can in part be accounted for by the fact that Traditional cluster wives were the only cluster group that indicated domestic labor was meaningful and important to their self-identity. These wives saw domestic labor as important to their "sense of purpose" and of "high priority." Equality was unimportant to them and, contrary to the domestic labor inequality/negative emotion premise, these wives felt that inequality in their own domestic labor division was fair.

The unsynchronized cluster group contains the highest percent of wives in the sample experiencing high inequality; that is, 87.6% or a 20% increase compared to the traditional cluster group. Yet the percent of unsynchronized cluster wives that reported high negative emotion was 62.5%; or a full 360% increase compared to the traditional cluster group. This tremendous outpouring of negative emotion is no doubt partially attributable to the high proportion of wives that were experiencing inequality but it was further accentuated by the negative meaning domestic labor had for these women. Even though equality was important to them (equality unimportant = L), they were experiencing a high degree of domestic labor inequality and domestic labor was not important to their self identity. Hence they felt a tremendous sense of unfairness and negative emotion.

Conclusion and Implications to Extension

The research reported here represents an attempt to move beyond linear analysis and look at what meaning domestic labor has in connection to inequality and negative emotions. When meaning patterns/cluster groups were taken into account, themes emerged that helped resolve the domestic labor puzzle and made visible connections between division of labor and emotions regarding that labor.

Five distinctive meaning clusters were identified: two that were somewhat traditional (clusters B & F), two that were more contemporary and egalitarian (clusters A & D), and one with tremendous inequality and high negative emotion (cluster C) but consisted of only a fraction of the sample population (13.6 percent). In short, each group's pattern of meaning seemed to logically connect that group's domestic labor division and emotional outcome. In this regard the domestic labor meaning patterns of self identity, equality importance, and fairness combined to solve a piece of the domestic labor puzzle.

Extension professionals can use this information to help provide insight for their clientele as they examine their own domestic labor division. As more women enter the workforce, they need to examine what meaning domestic labor has to them. This research could be used to visualize the meaning patterns/clusters and help them better understand what part domestic labor plays as a part of their self-identity, importance of equality and fairness.


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