Report no. 5: Sharing of housework in couple families in 2020

Report no. 5: Sharing of housework in couple families in 2020

Families in Australia Survey

Jennifer Baxter

Research Report – September 2021
Multi-ethnic couple doing chores cleaning home bathroom

Overview

This paper presents an overview of reports on sharing housework from couples who live together. It explores changes, if any, in how couples shared housework at different times during 2020, and their levels of satisfaction with how housework is shared. The report primarily presents analysis from the second Families in Australia Survey, conducted in November–December 2020, but also draws on findings from the first survey in May–June 2020.

Key findings

  • Within opposite-sex couples, there is a gendered distribution of housework. At the end of 2020, according to Families in Australia respondents, in 12% of couple families, household tasks were always done by the female and in 30% of couple families, they were usually done by the female.By comparison, in 8% of couple families these tasks were usually done by the male and in 2% of couple families, they were always done by the male. Household tasks were shared equally in 47% of couple families.

  • Most males were satisfied with the way household tasks are divided between themselves and their partner (74% satisfied or very satisfied) compared to 52% of satisfied females. Six per cent of males were dissatisfied compared to 24% of females.

  • Dissatisfaction among females was particularly apparent in families in which both partners worked full-time hours and the female usually or always did more housework.

  • Respondents’ comments about the sharing of housework illustrated the varied reasons for the way these tasks are distributed. Sometimes these reflected negotiated arrangements. Sometimes they reflected one partner being constrained in time/opportunity and sometimes they reflected gendered attitudes or roles that had been in place for a long time.

News stories

Introduction

For couples who live together, the sharing of household work, such as cooking, cleaning and shopping, is often unevenly split between the two members. Within opposite-sex couples, women often spend more time on these household tasks than men. This is somewhat related to differences in paid work and time in the home but it also related to gender role attitudes (J. A. Baxter, 2015; J. H. Baxter, 2002; van Egmond, Baxter, Buchler, & Western, 2010).

This paper explores the sharing of household work within couples in 2020, using the Families in Australia Survey data for respondents in couple families.1 These surveys are not representative of the population and, in particular, have a much higher response from females than males.2 While this may mean some bias in the findings, the general findings are consistent with those reported elsewhere (e.g. Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2021; Craig & Churchill, 2020). (Couple parents were also asked about the sharing of child care, and this will be explored in a later publication.)

The survey asked how household tasks are shared and respondents’ satisfaction with this distribution of tasks. The survey also sought comments on the sharing of tasks.3

Respondents were asked ‘Who in your household is currently doing the household tasks, such as cleaning and cooking?’, with response options aiming to capture whether these tasks are always or usually predominantly done by themselves or their partner, or equally shared. Responses were combined with information on the gender of respondent and partner to classify these arrangements in terms of the distribution between the male and female in the couple.

Overall patterns of sharing housework

The gendered distribution of housework is apparent in the responses to this question. Overall, at the end of 2020:4

  • 12% reported that household tasks were always done by the female
  • 30% reported they were usually done by the female
  • 47% reported they were shared equally
  • 8% reported they were usually done by the male
  • 2% reported they were always done by the male.

Figure 1 shows that the findings from Survey 1, for May–June 2020, are similar to these findings for November–December 2020 (although differences in the sample characteristics of Survey 1 and Survey 2 mean that care should be taken in making direct comparisons between the two surveys).

In the first survey, we also captured how housework was typically shared before COVID. These findings indicated that, although many people were at home, working or not, during May–June 2020, this had only resulted in a small shift in the distribution of household tasks between partners from before COVID to May–June 2020. This shift showed a little more equal sharing at May–June, rather than the usual of the female doing more.

Figure 1: Sharing of housework before COVID and at May–June 2020

Figure 1: Sharing of housework before COVID and at May–June 2020. Please read text description.


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Notes: Weighted data. Opposite-sex couples.

Source: Families in Australia, Survey 1, May–June 2020

Among the 303 female respondents who answered this question in both surveys, in May–June 2020 as well as November–December 2020, and whose responses could be linked across surveys, a majority reported similarly on their sharing of household tasks at both points in time:

  • 39% at both surveys said it was always or usually themselves who did the household tasks
  • 33% at both surveys said that these tasks were usually shared
  • 3% at both surveys said their partner always or usually does these tasks
  • 9% reported equal sharing at November–December but not at May–June
  • 16% reported equal sharing at May–June 2020 but not later in the year.

There was an insufficient number of male respondents to compare their responses across waves. Of the 62 males who could be compared across the two surveys, the majority reported at both surveys that they shared equally (63%) or that their partner always or usually does the household tasks (15%).

Some of the analysis and discussion below illustrates the factors that may contribute to change in the sharing of household tasks.

Satisfaction with sharing of household work

In November–December 2020, respondents were asked how satisfied they were with the way household tasks were shared. Most respondents indicated that they were satisfied, with just 13% saying they were dissatisfied and 3% saying they were very dissatisfied. Nearly one in four said they were very satisfied.

Given the gendered patterns to how housework is shared, it is not surprising that females in the Families in Australia Survey were more often dissatisfied than males in how the household tasks are divided.

Infographic: Satisfaction of sharing of household work. Please read text description


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Relating these ratings to the reports on how housework tasks are shared (Figure 2), the greatest satisfaction is reported by those who share these tasks equally with their partner.

Where dissatisfaction is much more apparent is with females who report that the household tasks are done primarily by them. In those families, 33% of females were dissatisfied and 10% very dissatisfied. We look at this more below, when exploring the satisfaction of females within families in which both partners are employed full-time.

Figure 2: Satisfaction with sharing of household tasks, by gender and sharing of household tasks in couples

Figure 2: Satisfaction with sharing of household tasks, by gender and sharing of household tasks in couples. Please read text description.


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Notes: Weighted data. Opposite-sex couples.

Source: Families in Australia, Survey 2, November–December 2020

Comments by survey respondents help explain some of the links between the sharing of tasks and levels of satisfaction.

For example, looking at some comments by those who are ‘very satisfied’ yet say it is ‘always me’ or ‘usually me’ who does the household tasks, there is a sense that roles within the couple have been negotiated or reflect constraints related to work or other factors such as health.

I work part-time so I do more around the house as my husband works long hours and when he is home I want him to spend time with his child.
Female aged 31 years, male partner
I don’t work while he does so my job is to keep the house clean, take care of the kids, etc., which I’m happy to do.
Female aged 30 years, male partner
My wife earns the money. I look after the children and the house. We’re like a 1950s family in reverse. It works!
Male aged 45 years, female partner
I do mostly everything as my husband has cancer but does try to help.
Female aged 71 years, male partner

Looking from the other perspective, those who are ‘very satisfied’ and say it is ‘always my partner’ or ‘usually my partner’ who does the household tasks, there are typically references to the negotiated roles, which may also reflect work and other constraints within the couple.

I took a promotion this year so we sat down … and renegotiated how we’d split things. Before this year we were both part-time and split the child care and housework between us. This year, my partner reduced his hours from 80% to 70% so I could go full-time, and he has carried more of the load of child care and housework, which has worked very well for us.
Female aged 42 years, male partner
I’m very satisfied because I work in a full-time job and he is now not working. So he cooks and does a spot of cleaning!
Female aged 57 years, male partner
My husband does a lot as I have a disability.
Female aged 56 years, male partner

There is not always evidence of negotiation, and some patterns may instead have become entrenched over time. We see this in some of the comments of older Families in Australia respondents, when examining age differences later in this report.

Traditional household: wife does paid work part-time and does most of the unpaid housework.
Male aged 60 years, female partner

Dissatisfaction among those who say it is they who always or usually do these tasks is reflected in negative comments about the way tasks are shared, and the unfairness and volume of work. The persistence of gender role attitudes appears to affect some couples.

My husband works long hours so I have to do majority of things otherwise we wouldn’t eat until very late at night. I feel stereotypes still exist and it is expected that as a woman I would do the ironing and washing and cleaning. I work full-time and travel 3 hours a day, this expectation is not realistic.
Female aged 35 ye, male partner
The cultural normative in my household still seems to be the man goes out to work and the woman takes care of the house and the children. I’ve tried to challenge it and encourage him to do more, and he says he will but it just ends up with me nagging him and it’s easier to do it myself.
Female aged 37 years, male partner

Some, though, are dissatisfied yet explain that the roles reflect the differences in allocation of time to paid work, or for other reasons such as health conditions.

This isn’t so much of a gender issue, such as my husband not participating because it is a ‘women’s job’. It is more to do with the fact he is in paid employment and we need that. He has been in essential services and worked overtime so I tried to do the other tasks to take the load off. He has been mentally exhausted from the workload.
Female aged 34, male partner
Although I feel very dissatisfied re household tasks, my partner is unable to contribute due to mobility and chronic pain issues.
Female aged 64 years, male partner

Dissatisfaction was also expressed by some respondents who reported their partner always or usually does the household tasks. For them, a key issue was constraints on their ability to share in these tasks, with a number of references to the effects of physical or mental illness.

I have chronic pain so my husband has to do most of the work although I wish I could do more.
Female aged 35 years, male partner
I would like to contribute more but often have difficulty due to burnout and poor mental health.
Female aged 31 years, male partner

Some others who were dissatisfied but with a partner who was doing more explained the division of tasks reflected their paid work arrangements, which meant their partner was in a better position than them to do more of the household work.

Now we examine further the differences in the sharing of housework according to some characteristics.

Paid work and sharing of housework

There is considerable diversity in paid work arrangements across families and, as evident in some of the comments above, these paid work arrangements tend to set the scene for the ways in which household tasks are shared.

Figure 3 shows that the sharing of housework is closely related to how paid work is shared within the couple. In particular, it is common for the female partner to always or usually do the household work when the male works full-time and the female works part-time or not at all. The trend is reversed in couples where the male partner is not working but the female is, consistent with some of the quotes presented. Equal sharing is, however, reported across many families, even when there is an imbalance in work hours.

We also note that, within these couple-employment categories, there is variation, which to some extent will reflect other characteristics of the families. In the next section, below, we will look at variation by respondent’s age and the presence of children.

Figure 3: Sharing of household tasks by couple employment, all couples

Figure 3: Sharing of household tasks by couple employment, all couples. Please read text description.


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Notes: Weighted data. Opposite-sex couples.

Source: Families in Australia, Survey 2, November–December 2020

In commenting on the sharing of household tasks, it was common for respondents to refer to their or their partner’s work hours or their location of work, including working at home.

As I work from home more, many household tasks fall to me, and it sometimes feels as if my work is less important or onerous because it is done from home, so I should shoulder more of the chores.
Female aged 48 years, male partner
Husband has a very large workload and has to spend a lot of time working when at home, this results in most of the household tasks being completed by myself.
Female aged 31 years, male partner

The impacts of work were reported not just by respondents who said they do most of the household work but also by those who did not. These respondents sometimes expressed regret at not being able to do more around the house.

I would like to do more around the house to help her, but 12-hour shifts leave me exhausted. I still do more on my days off though.
Male aged 28 years, female partner
I would like to do more but I am away with work too much.
Male aged 37 years, female partner

We note that in families in which both partners work full-time, a significant proportion of the females are usually or always doing the household work. The ratings of satisfaction with the division of household tasks among females in this situation is much lower than for those females who are in families where both partners work full-time but the household tasks are shared equally.

Females' satisfaction with the way household tasks are shared – Families with both partners working full-time hours. Please read text description.


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The dissatisfaction in these working families, in which the female does more, comes through strongly in the women’s comments:

Very unevenly distributed and often causes conflict when the issue is raised that he needs to contribute more.
Female aged 51 years, male partner
I’m going on strike. I am done.
Female aged 42 years, male partner
Predominately all my responsibility and it is totally unfair.
Female aged 45 years, male partner

Age, parenthood and sharing of housework

Differences in the sharing of housework are also apparent when looking at respondent age and whether there are children in the home, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Sharing of household tasks by age of respondent, and presence of children under 18 years, all couples

Figure 4: Sharing of household tasks by age of respondent, and presence of children under 18 years, all couples. Please read text description.


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Notes: Weighted data. Opposite-sex couples. The disaggregation by presence of children is only shown for those under 45 years, given small numbers in the sample aged 45 years and over with children under 18 years in the household.

Source: Families in Australia, Survey 2, November–December 2020

Such differences not only reflect paid work arrangements but may also reflect gender role and parenting attitudes. Generational factors may contribute to differences by age, with the roles within families of older respondents perhaps reflecting old established patterns. There is certainly evidence of this from comments of older Families in Australia respondents.

I’m in my sixties. After that many decades I have my partner pretty well-trained.
Female aged 69 years, male partner
Came from traditional background of task division. After 50 years, it’s a bit late to change.
Female aged 71 years, male partner
After 42 years of marriage we seem to fall into a routine of sharing tasks without even speaking about it, he likes to cook, I do most of the cleaning, we share the washing. We communicate about tasks.
Female aged 63 years, male partner
Along traditional lines but have been doing it so long (52 years) it is easier that way, we know our roles and everything gets done.
Female aged 73 years, male partner

The impact of parenthood on the sharing of housework can be seen in Figure 4. It is strongly tied to the impact of parenthood on women’s employment – as women tend to do more of the caring work when they have young children, reducing their time in paid work. A consequence of this, in many families, is that women also take up more of the household tasks. This is evident in many of the comments presented in this publication. (See also Fathers and work: A statistical overview for how the time use patterns of men and women change at the transition to parenthood.)

Looking at the comments in the Families in Australia Survey of mothers who were at home on maternity leave, they tend to report doing more of the household tasks. However, this appeared to be a transition period for couples, with some reflecting on how they expect – or have planned – for the household work to be shared once this time of leave is finished.

We were very equal until baby. More leave for fathers is less likely to make it fall on one partner. My partner does a lot, which helps, but if I’m home I’m going to do more.
Female aged 39 years, male partner
Being on maternity leave gives husband an excuse for him to do less. I’m sure it will continue this way when I go back to work even though my work hours are longer.
Female aged 36 years, male partner
I’m a stay at home mum while on maternity leave, I expect to do more. I’m very scared about how we will manage when I go back to work.
Female aged 39 years, male partner

COVID and sharing of household tasks

As indicated by the statistics presented earlier on, changes in the sharing of household tasks in response to the COVID pandemic and related restrictions showed some shifts within households related to who does what. Some of these changes were toward more equitable sharing, while others tipped the balance toward less equitable sharing, as seen in the following comments.

For some couples, working at home together increased the visibility of each other’s work demands as well as household demands.

COVID actually allowed my husband to see how busy I am in my job. He took on much more of the household and child care tasks after that.
Female aged 30 years, male partner
Covid actually helped shine a light on the amount of work I do in the home and my partner has improved since our roles were reversed when he was home with the kids 3 days while I was at work during the peak Covid cases and we pulled the kids out of child care for 6 weeks.
Female aged 35 years, male partner

As noted previously, though, some experienced a heightened expectation to take on the household jobs due to being seen to be available, given working at home arrangements.

Because I now work from home everyone expects me to do all the household chores and I end up doing them because I am home all day.
Female aged 46 years, male partner
Before COVID, tasks were shared equally between my partner and I; however, this has gradually become more unequal with my partner doing less: Partly because my partner has lacked motivation during this time, understandably, and my working from home gives my partner the illusion that I have ‘more time’ for household tasks, so I find myself doing more cooking and cleaning than before.
Female aged 29 years, male partner

Others benefited from COVID providing an opportunity to have more flexible working arrangements, which flowed through to changes in how tasks in the home were shared.

Husband has higher salary and so we chose for him to remain full-time while I went part-time, plus my workplace is more flexible than his. This is not my ideal situation – I would prefer equal work in both paid and unpaid domains – but circumstances dictated it. However, COVID restrictions forced more flexibility (for him) and him taking on more of the household/parenting load – a silver lining – and we will endeavour to continue this going forward.
Female aged 44 years, male partner

It was noted by a number of respondents that there were some big factors affecting the amount of household work to be done – in particular, related to there being more people at home. This led to more demand for cooking and cleaning and, for some families, the extra responsibility of managing home schooling.

COVID radically disrupted our usual division of child care and household jobs. The kids were home full-time and the cleaning and cooking were also a hugely bigger job than usual. Most of the home schooling, child care, cooking and cleaning fell to me during lockdowns. I had to work late at night and early in the morning to squeeze my work hours in, as my partner’s work was less flexible, and I had the kids the rest of the time. It was not an equal division but there wasn’t much we could do about it because of a lack of flexibility from my partner’s work, the increased load she was carrying at work (in a legal aid team dealing directly with the impacts of COVID on people’s tenancy issues) and because we simply didn’t have the energy or time to figure out better options. It was awful!
Female aged 36 years, female partner
Even though my partner is home more with work he doesn’t do any more of the housework. The house is messier because we are home more and this can lead to arguments and a chaotic space.
Female aged 32 years, male partner
Having extra people in the home has increased the workload and stress, and I am exhausted.
Female aged 67 years, male partner

Life changes and negotiating changing roles

In commenting on how household tasks are shared, respondents noted how their current sharing patterns reflected specific short-term situations, particularly those related to medical conditions.

Currently pregnant with high risk so my partner has been doing more household tasks; however, this would normally be equal.
Female aged 36 years, male partner
Currently have a broken leg so my partner is doing everything. Normally we share responsibilities.
Female aged 41 years, female partner

Some were constrained in their options to share housework due to one of the partners having a long-term health condition or disability.

As I have a chronic illness, my husband does the bulk of cooking and housework. I would prefer if we shared more equally, but it is not practically possible for us.
Female aged 70 years, male partner

Some had settled on a division of household tasks that saw each doing different jobs, sometimes suited to their interests and sometimes due to availability.

I am home more so do a lot of the housework. When my wife is home, she does some of the jobs I don’t like doing but which she is happy to do. We also have a roster of who does what and when with most tasks alternating.
Male aged 46 years, female partner
Between us we seem to divide the interior and exterior tasks up pretty well, with my spouse very content and capable with the former, and me pretty satisfied with handling the latter. Tasks are divided mainly on typical gender stereotypical lines without intending to be, and we both like to think that we partner in these tasks and roles pretty well by more playing to our individual strengths and talents.
Male aged 56 years, female partner

Executive tasks and sharing housework

A number of Families in Australia respondents commented on the fact the survey question did not enquire about the mental tasks, or executive tasks, associated with running a household. That is, who makes the appointments and pays the bills, for example. There was a great sense of dissatisfaction among respondents that this contribution to household tasks is somewhat invisible yet can be a considerable burden. Comments indicated this aspect of household work is very often undertaken by females.

Although the physical tasks are roughly equal, the organising, mental load of knowing what needs to happen stays with me, despite me being the one working full-time while my partner is out of work.
Female aged 49 years, male partner
The tasks are split up fairly; however, I seem to be the boss in charge and carry the mental load.
Female aged 33 years, male partner.
Mental load is an under-reported and not often discussed issue.
Female aged 32 years, male partner

Survey 3 of Families in Australia includes a new question asking about the sharing of this aspect of household work.

Other family issues in sharing housework

Some respondents reported on some different issues to those covered above when answering the question about sharing household work.

Some families faced challenges in establishing roles and responsibilities in household tasks if one of the couple was a step-parent. While this typically related to complexities in the sharing of child care, this flowed through to the sharing of other household work.

As a step-mum, I do a lot of child care and housework that I didn’t have to do before moving in with my partner. It’s easy for a male parent to expect his female partner to just take on the mothering responsibilities and I’ve taken on a lot.
Female aged 35 years, male partner
As my partner is not my daughter’s father, the division of care is difficult to negotiate.
Female aged 32 years, male partner

A number of families with older children commented on their children’s contribution to the household work – noting that the ‘sharing’ question did not allow for the contribution made by children. Some reported positively on this contribution, while others commented more negatively.

Adult children and their partners do nothing and I don’t know how to change this. Partner is a male stereotype.
Female aged 52 years, male partner
All family members in my household share household tasks.
Female aged 48 years, male partner

We also note the experience of same-sex couples, who are not represented in the couple-level graphs above.

We are a same-sex couple so we have an equal share. We have noticed that some of our friends and straight couples in our mums group have tended to default to traditional gender roles after baby is born, where mum does most of the work.
Female aged 36 years, female partner
As a lesbian relationship, we have a pretty good balance of this due to not being bound by the gender norms of society. It is much easier to be equitable and flexible as there is no outside pressure on us to be a certain way. There is also the benefit of the children only being in our care 50% of the time, as the other 50% they are with their biological father.
Female aged 28 years, female partner

Summary

The gendered distribution of housework within couples is apparent in the Families in Australia Survey responses, and this was little changed during COVID, as reported in the first survey, in May–June 2020.

At November–December 2020 there was more satisfaction than dissatisfaction among partnered males and females in how household tasks are shared but females were much more likely to be dissatisfied than males. This was especially apparent when females usually or always did the household work, and more so among those doing most of the housework who worked full-time hours and also had a partner working full-time hours.

The comments in the survey provide insights on how household roles came about, and how those roles were experienced. The couples’ paid work arrangements often set the scene for the way household tasks were shared but it was also apparent that there were generational factors with some older couples, while others’ arrangements were affected by disability and health conditions. Many other issues emerged, highlighting the varied ways that families work out or settle into these roles. Life changes, such as new parenthood, blending families and changes to work, can all be part of what makes a difference to families.

About the survey

Towards COVID Normal was the second survey in the Families in Australia Survey (AIFS’ flagship survey series). It ran from 19 November to 23 December 2020, when restrictions had been eased in most states.

The pandemic in Australia triggered an unprecedented set of government responses, including the closing of Australia’s borders to non-residents, and restrictions on movement, gatherings and ‘non-essential’ services.

Although the health consequences over the period were not as severe in Australia as they were in many countries, social and economic effects were profound. The Towards COVID Normal survey attempted to capture some of those effects. The survey was promoted through the media, social media, newsletters, internet advertising and word of mouth.

Survey participants

In the first FIAS survey, there were 7,306 respondents to the survey, of which 6,435 completed all survey questions. There were 4,843 couple respondents.

In the second FIAS survey, 4,866 participants responded, of which 3,627 completed all survey questions. There were 2,610 couple respondents.

References

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). (2021). Household impacts of COVID-19, May 2021. Canberra: ABS. Retrieved from Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, May 2021 | Australian Bureau of Statistics (abs.gov.au)

Baxter, J. A. (2015). Gender role attitudes within couples, and parents’ time in paid work, child care and housework. In Australian Institute of Family Studies (Ed.), The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children Annual Statistical Report 2014 (pp. 39–62). Melbourne: AIFS.

Baxter, J. H. (2002). Patterns of change and stability in the gender division of household labour in Australia, 1986–1997. Journal of Sociology, 38(4), 399–424.

Craig, L. & Churchill, B. (2020). Dual-earner parent couples’ work and care during COVID-19. Gender, Work & Organization, 28. 10.1111/gwao.12497.

van Egmond, M., Baxter, J. H., Buchler, S., & Western, M. (2010). A stalled revolution? Gender role attitudes in Australia, 1986–2005. Journal of Population Research27(3), 147–168.

1 Couples for this paper are defined as those who say they have a resident partner. Some also report having a partner who lives elsewhere but they have not been included in this analysis given the focus on sharing of housework. Much of the analysis focuses on opposite-sex couples, as gender would not be informative about how housework is shared within same-sex couples. Note that these data have been weighted and are therefore somewhat different to the previously reported unweighted estimates from Survey 1.

2 The approaches taken to promote the survey have resulted in some biases. The first survey, in May–June 2020, had a total of 4,843 couple respondents of which 2,263 have children under 18 years. There was a much higher representation of families with young children in Survey 2, in November–December 2020, compared to the first survey. This sample had a total of 2,610 couple respondents of which 1,594 have children aged under 18 years.

3 Comments were taken from responses to the question ‘Would you like to comment on the sharing of [child care and other] household tasks in your family?’ A total of 848 respondents provided a comment in Survey 2. Responses were reviewed to identify key issues and to reflect the diversity of family circumstances and experiences. Quotes provided here are used to illustrate these, focusing on comments about the sharing of housework rather than sharing of child care, which will be the subject of a later report.

4 A very small number of respondents (15 out of 2,607) indicated someone other than they or their partner does the housework and they are excluded from the analysis.

Acknowledgements

Author: Jennifer Baxter

Editor: Katharine Day

Graphic design: Lisa Carroll


Featured image: © GettyImages/diego_cervo

Publication details

Research Report
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, September 2021

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