Economic theories of the household predict that increases in female relative human capital lead to decreases in female housework time. However, evidence seems to contradict this implication: Despite the increase in female labor force participation, time devoted to housework by men has changed very little in the last decades. Also, studies show that, when a wife works more hours than her husband outside the home, she still undertakes a larger share of housework.
Traditional theories of the household can explain this evidence by assuming either that women have a higher comparative advantage in household production or that women derive a higher utility from housework. However, this explanation is not valid for the empirical regularity that women with higher earnings than their husbands do not only do relatively more housework than them, but also do more housework than women whose earnings are lower than their husbands.
Social scientists turn to social norms to explain these empirical regularities. They suggest an economic model of identity to explain why women undertake a greater share of housework than their husbands even when they work more hours and have higher earnings. In their model, a husband looses identity when his wife earns more than he does because of the prescription held by most men that they should earn more than their wives. Equality in utility is restored when the wife undertakes more housework than her husband given the prescription that men should not do women's work at home.
In a similar fashion, the sociological literature argues that when men earn less than their wives, a gender norm violation occurs. Thus, either, the wife, the husband or both move to more traditional behavior in the realm of housework in order to neutralize this deviance. This would explain why women who earn more than their husbands not only devote more time to the household but also do relatively more housework than women who earn less than their husbands. This neutralization effect is what has been called in the literature "doing gender."
In their research paper "Social Norms and Household Time Allocation," Cristina Fernandez of IESE Business School and Almudena Sevilla-Sanz of University of Oxford use the "2002-03 Spanish Time Use" to explore the presence of social norms associated with the household division of housework and childcare. Spain is the perfect example to use in this context, the authors claim, as it is a country where gender roles are deeply entrenched.
Consistent with other studies, Fernandez and Sevilla-Sanz find support for the notion of social norms upon the division of housework. They observe a high level of specialization within the household, with women who earn more than their husbands still undertaking about 70 percent of all housework and childcare. Also, they find that a woman's relative share of housework decreases as her relative earnings increase only up to the point when she earns the same as her husband, but then it remains constant. Finally, the authors use detailed description of childcare activities and find that, independently of the definition of childcare, the relative time devoted to childcare does not vary with spouses' relative earnings.
All these findings seem to contradict traditional theories of the household and suggest that social norms might be at the root of division of household time. Fernandez and Sevilla-Sanz provide a possible interpretation of the results in light of social norms:
First, women who earn more than their husbands might simply be less productive at home, and they would need to devote more time to housework in order to get the same output than women that earn less than their husbands (although big evidence in the literature shows that more productive women in the market are also more productive at home).
An alternative explanation would be that women who earn more than their husbands have everything else equal, a stronger taste for household produced goods and childcare than women who earn less than their husbands.
Finally, another plausible explanation offered by the authors might have to do with the matching mechanism in the marriage market. It might be that women whose earnings are higher than their husbands marry men who either have a higher taste for household produced goods and childcare, or who are less productive at housework or childcare.