Hacking Inequality at Home

Apps can help working couples share household labor more equitably if they’re used the right way.

Although the number of couples in which both partners have careers grows each year, women continue to perform most of the work at home. This inequality is a source of stress for working women and relationship tension for couples, and it’s a key reason why women off-ramp from their careers, take longer to advance, and don’t progress as far as men.

Many working couples recognize these problems and are trying to share the labor more equitably. In an attempt to balance their investment in household work and manage their complex lives, they are increasingly turning to technology. Applications such as Cozi, Picniic, Wunderlist, Labor of Love, and Remember the Milk promise to help couples split the mental and physical load of household management, collaborate to manage chores, schedule appointments, and ensure that no family balls get dropped. But to what extent can an app really help couples hack inequality at home?

As part of an ongoing research project looking into the lives of dual-career couples, I’ve been examining the impact of technology on managing the balance of household work between partners. Most couples I studied who adopted household management applications did so on reaching a crunch point with imbalance and overload. I’ve found that while applications can help address these issues, they also can hinder progress and even exacerbate the problems. What makes the difference, I’ve discovered, is how couples view and adopt the technology.

Simply put, the apps fail to be effective when couples treat them as the solution to what ails them. This sounds paradoxical — the promise of most apps is to serve exactly that purpose. So, what is going on?

When couples treat technology as the solution, they jump immediately into implementation mode. They spend time searching for, testing, and agreeing upon the “best” applications. Then they put the technology straight to work. In doing so, couples overlook the underlying forces that created their imbalance and overload in the first place — for instance, their struggles for power and control, the roles they expect each other to play in their shared lives, and societal expectations of gender that exert a powerful influence on them. The problem with ignoring these forces is that, as one man I interviewed thoughtfully described, “The apps became a symptom of the problem.” Let’s explore how this happens.

To adopt an app, couples need to enter all of their household chores into a list, typically noting deadlines and recurrences. This compilation makes a couple’s historic inequality of contributions to household work fully transparent. To aid the rebalancing of effort, a standard feature of all the apps I looked at is the ability for partners to assign each other tasks.

In couples who treated technology as the solution and overlooked the underlying causes of their inequality, this feature was used in a way that made things worse. The partner who did the lion’s share of household tasks (usually, although not always, the woman) was the one who assigned tasks to the other. Rationally this made sense. The “assigning” partner had a more complete view of what needed to get done and could engage the other partner in tasks through the feature. However, having one assigner rarely worked well. “There was no conversation,” explained one man with whom I spoke. “I would just get notifications from the app that I had a task to perform and a deadline for it. I massively resented that. The app turned my wife into my manager.”

The roles people took on — nagging manager, resentful spouse — increased tensions between couples and often led them to abandon the technology and revert to their previous state of imbalance. As one woman explained, “Our family became a project management exercise, not a family, and I was the project manager. On the one hand, I felt vindicated that I was doing way more household work than him, but instead of it making him step up, it made us more embattled. Was it worth it? No. After six weeks we gave up.”

I found that couples for whom household management technology made a significant positive difference approached its adoption from a very different angle. Instead of treating it as a solution in and of itself, they treated it as a way to enact and track a solution that they found through frank conversations about their desired roles in their relationship and their expectations of each other. Through these discussions, they decided how they should divide and manage household tasks. The conversations were not always easy, but they formed the basis of a deal that helped partners overcome their inequality and overload issues.

One couple I interviewed, having reached their crunch point just before Christmas, spent a whole day exploring why their input into household work had become so imbalanced and negotiating a division of labor to remedy it. Once they had this firmly agreed, they adopted an app to make it happen. As the husband explained, “It’s the clarity that got rid of the friction, not the app. The app is simply a way to track the clarity. Now we have a reset meeting every three months to revisit our deal and make sure it’s still working for both of us.”

Surprisingly, the couples who found their solutions through probing conversations were the heaviest users of the apps. They used apps for anything from tracking chores and compiling shopping lists to making appointments, managing calendars, and planning holidays and other events. As one woman remarked, “The app has become our external brain.” These couples reported finding the apps incredibly helpful for reducing overload, balancing out tasks, and keeping them and their families on track. They also reported that the apps changed the way they used their time when they were together and the conversations they had.

“I’d rather spend the two hours we have each evening discussing how we feel and how our day went rather than [discussing] logistics,” one woman said. “The app made those boring administrative conversations redundant. Our time has become quality time, not practical time.” Many couples who adopted technology as a way of enacting a solution made similar comments. The technology worked excellently as a tracker, they said, and as a bonus it became a tool to maximize their quality time.

Taken together, my research shows that couples can hack inequality — not through technology, but through conversations that unearth the forces that drive imbalance in their relationship. Once they have explored these forces and negotiated solutions to them, they can use household management applications to make a positive difference in their lives.

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