Sometimes It's Hard to Be a Woman

That was the opening lyric to the Tammy Wynette song Stand by Your Man (although I much prefer Lyle Lovett's rendition).  Not being one myself, it is a bit dangerous to weigh in on such matters, but when one looks at the data, the lives of many women - at least as far as housework goes - has gotten much better over the past half century (though, to be sure, lives today are probably more complicated).    

According to this study published in PLoS ONE from 1965 to 201:

The time allocated to [household management] [Lusk: these are duties such as time spent in food preparation, post-meal cleaning activities (e.g., dish-washing), clothing maintenance (e.g., laundry), and general housework] by women] (19–64 yrs) decreased from 25.7 hr/week in 1965 to 13.3 hr/week in 2010 (P<0.001), with non-employed women decreasing by 16.6 hr/week and employed women by 6.7 hr/week (P<0.001). 

Non-employed women have gained almost a whole day! I referred to similar statistics toward the end of my TEDx talk, where I discuss some of the positive changes that have resulted from modern agriculture and improved food technologies.  With today's widely available dishwashers, microwaves, and washing machines, not to mention easily available, convenient food, housework doesn't take the time it once did (it's also true that men help out more than the once did, which helps).  

The authors of the PLoS ONE article went one step further, however, and asked: what happened to all those calories women once burned cooking and doing housework?  Their answer is that, even though many women now exercise more, the result is that those calories haven't gone anywhere - they've been stored as extra weight, and as such, this technological shift is (at least partially) to blame for the rise in obesity.  They calculate that non-employed women experienced a 42% reduction in energy expenditure (30% for employed women) because of the change in time spend on housework. 

Here is their conclusion:

From 1965 to 2010, there was a large and significant decrease in the time allocated to HM [household management]. By 2010, women allocated 25% more time to screen-based media use than HM (i.e., cooking, cleaning, and laundry combined). The reallocation of time from active pursuits (i.e., housework) to sedentary pastimes (e.g., watching TV) has important health consequences. These results suggest that the decrement in HMEE [household management energy expenditure may] have contributed to the increasing prevalence of obesity in women during the last five decades.

I made a related argument at the end of my talk on the politics and economics of obesity (see here).  It is almost impossible to sort out all the good changes that have happened since the 1960s (less smoking, more air conditioning, more driving, more convenient food, less housework, etc.) from some of the bad (e.g., higher prevalence of obesity).  It's probably human nature to want to have our cake and eat it too, but sometimes we may just want to accept the tradeoffs live presents us.  While there are probably a few women who wouldn't mind switching spots with their grandmothers, I suspect the vast majority would prefer their current lot in life.  None of this is to say that  we can't work toward a thinner and healthier present - only that it helps to have a bit of perspective before getting up in arms.

P.S.  As much as the story told in the PLoS ONE article fits in with the narrative I've weaved in some previous talks (and in my forthcoming book), there are some holes in the logic.  For example, why has the weight of men risen from 1960 to today?  Are men doing less housework too?  Or have their employed jobs also become less strenuous?  Another challenge:  women didn't start sitting on their duffs when they stopped doing as much housework - many started jobs outside the home, which presumably required some energy expenditure, though the current study simply lumps all "paid work" together as if sitting at a desk or digging ditches requires the same energy.