Second Shift Essay

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The concept of the second shift describes an unequal division of labor prevalent among heterosexual dual-earner couples in which women perform the bulk of unpaid household labor and child care in addition to their paid employment. Also referred to as the “double day,” the second shift marks an important form of gender inequality brought about by changing gender roles. Over the past four decades, as women’s labor force participation escalated, men’s participation at home increased only slightly. Consequently, women’s heavy responsibilities in paid and unpaid work expose them to role conflict and role overload, disrupt their attempts at leisure, and disadvantage their pay and promotion chances in the workplace.

Social scientists have researched the division of household labor through time diary studies, surveys that ask respondents to estimate the time they spend on various tasks (less accurate due to inflated responses), and in-depth fieldwork on women’s and men’s relationships in everyday life. Despite a cultural shift toward more egalitarian gender roles in the public realm, researchers agree that a “gender lag” exists at home: most routine household and childrearing tasks continue to be typified as women’s work. Even though women now spend fewer hours per week on unpaid household labor and child care, their time commitment still doubles or triples what men do, on average. Moreover, traditional “male” tasks (mowing the lawn or taking out the trash) offer men far more discretion over their time than women. Time-consuming “female” tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and caring for children frequently demand repeated and simultaneous action. Even when couples pay others to do their household labor, they mostly hire women to do it. Many quantitative studies fail to measure emotion work (tending to family members’ feelings) and the “invisible work” of planning and organizing family members’ activities. Qualitative studies have clarified how these forms of unpaid household labor disproportionately fall to women.

Patterns in the division of household labor show that the second shift is greatest in heterosexual households where women’s contributions to family income are low; under this condition, women trade their unpaid domestic labor for men’s financial support. As women’s incomes grow closer to their male partners’, the gender gap in the division of household labor shrinks (women decrease and men increase their domestic labor) but does not disappear. Paradoxically, researchers find that in relationships where males earn less than females, men do not perform more unpaid domestic labor in exchange for women’s financial support. When women earn all of the family income, men may perform even less household labor than males who out-earn their female partners. A crucial factor in these households is whether men depend voluntarily or involuntarily on women’s income. In cases where men do so voluntarily, their household labor may exceed women’s. But males who involuntarily experience extended unemployment may perform far less household labor, and their female partners may increase theirs in response. Although few qualitative and quantitative studies of the division of household labor adequately include lesbian and gay couples, researchers find that their arrangements are more likely to be egalitarian, especially among lesbians.

When examining couples’ race and ethnicity, researchers find that men who reside in immigrant ethnic enclaves are more likely to support patriarchal gender arrangements and perform less unpaid household labor than men living in more heterogeneous communities. Among African American heterosexual couples, the overall pattern of women performing more unpaid domestic labor than men still holds, but the gender gap is smaller. African American dual-earner couples are more likely than white couples to share household labor, primarily because African American men spend more time performing a greater variety of household tasks than white men do, on average. Some studies of dual-earner Chicano/a couples report a similar pattern of Chicano males doing more household labor than Anglo males but less than African American males. Aside from the possibility of ethnic and class influences on couples’ gender ideologies, members of minority dual-earner couples are more likely to earn comparable incomes and, out of financial necessity, operate more cooperative households.

Why does the gender gap in household labor persist? Cultural assumptions about gender matter more than any other factor. When men hold power in the public sphere (through their income), their public success translates into power at home. Many women honor men’s breadwinner status by performing most of the household labor and child care, even if they also work full time outside the home. But, when women hold higher status in the public realm, they do not necessarily garner more power and privileges at home.

Their higher status may instead be regarded as a liability that undermines their male partners’ traditional masculine role and renders the couple gender deviant. Only when male partners value the importance of women’s paid contributions and occupational status do they willingly take on an equal or greater share of household labor.

Social constructions of masculinity also matter. In most Western industrialized cultures, men often accomplish masculinity by avoiding being feminine. By strategically avoiding or resisting domestic labor, men can reproduce heterosexual masculine status and preserve traditional privileges and power at home. As a result, men may define their household labor as optional, not required, in sharp contrast to women.

For women, the roles of wife and mother ideologically inform how they should demonstrate their love, care, and concern for others. Caring becomes a criterion for evaluating the moral worth of women who are mothers, spouses, and romantic partners; consequently, women who feel overwhelmed by the second shift and want to cut back their household labor face the accusation of being cold, bossy, neglectful, and unloving. The cultural weight of motherhood is such that, even in studies that exclude actual time spent caring for children, women’s household labor increases far more than men’s when young children are at home, regardless of income.

Overall, the consequences of the second shift confer more benefits and privileges to men and more obligations to women. Women, on average, pay a higher price in terms of lower compensation for their paid work, greater responsibilities at home, and a diminished amount of uninterrupted leisure.


  1. 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 79:191-228.
  2. Bittman, Michael, Paula England, Liana Sayer, Nancy Folbre, and George Matheson. 2003. “When Does Gender Trump Money? Bargaining and Time in Household Work.” American Journal of Sociology 109:186-214.
  3. Bittman, Michael and Judy Wajcman. 2000. “The Rush Hour: The Character of Leisure Time and Gender Equity.” Social Forces 79:165-89.
  4. Deutsch, Francine. 1999. Halving It All. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  5. Greenstein, Theodore N. 2000. “Economic Dependence, Gender, and the Division of Labor in the Home: A Replication and Extension.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 62:322-35.
  6. Hochschild, Arlie Russell with Anne Machung. [1989] 2003. The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home. New York: Penguin.
  7. Orbuch, Terri L. and Sandra L. Eyster. 1997. “Division of Household Labor among Black Couples and White Couples.” Social Forces 76:301-32.
  8. Schneider, Barbara and Linda J. Waite, eds. 2005. Being Together, Working Apart: Dual-Career Families and the Work-Life Balance. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  9. Tichenor, Veronica Jaris. 2005. Earning More and Getting Less: Why Successful Wives Can’t Buy Equality. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

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