Why the gender gap in children’s allowances matters

I figured the gender wage gap in babysitting had to be the earliest wage gap out there. But Bryce Covert has uncovered an even earlier one:

Nearly 70 percent of boys say they get an allowance, compared to just under 60 percent of girls, according to a new survey from Junior Achievement.

But unfortunately, it’s not likely because boys do more chores. One study found that girls do two more hours of housework a week than boys, while boys spend twice as much time playing. The same study confirmed that boys are still more likely to get paid for what they do: they are 15 percent more likely to get an allowance for doing chores than girls. A 2009 survey of children ages 5 to 12 found that far more girls are assigned chores than boys. A study in Europe also found fewer boys contribute to work around the house.

And it’s not just that boys are more likely to be paid by their parents, but they also get more money. One study found that boys spent just 2.1 hours a week on chores and made $48 on average, while girls put in 2.7 hours to make $45. A British study found that boys get paid 15 percent more than girls for the same chores.

Obviously, compared to pay inequity in the adult working world, the stakes of the allowance gap aren’t all that high. But in terms of socialization, I think it tells us a lot. Since allowances exist in this fuzzy gray area — some kids don’t get them at all, some get them loosely as “payment” for chores, some get them just for being a kid as an early entitlement program — this gap reveals a lot about how sexist norms around gender and unpaid labor are perpetuated, starting from a very young age. 

The research Bryce points to illustrates a few different dynamics at play here beyond just the fact that boys are more likely to get an allowance than girls. There’s the fact that, regardless of the payment factor, girls are assigned more chores than boys in general, which teaches both to view housework as “naturally” women’s responsibility, and contributes to the housework gender gap that only worsens as they grow up and have families of their own. And there’s the fact that when payment is given for chores, girls get less than boys for the same tasks — a nice little preview of the blatant pay discrimination they may face as adults in the workforce.

But it’s the fact that boys are more likely to get an allowance for chores that really speaks to the complicated way sexism determines how labor is valued under capitalism. As Bryce notes, “Asking girls to do more chores without paying them teaches both genders that women are meant to do unpaid work.” And if they are meant to do it, it will not be seen as a work at all. It will be duty or responsibility or love — unless a guy does it and then it will become worthy of compensation.

This is the magical alchemy of patriarchy: labor that is devalued when done by women becomes valued when done by men.

One of the linked studies provides some clues to how this works. Boys got more money putting in less time on chores, because “parents divided jobs along gender lines, with boys more likely to mow lawns, wash cars and take out the bins. Girls were assigned indoor chores, such as cleaning bedrooms, washing up and doing laundry.” Clean laundry, of course, is no less necessary to the household than a neatly trimmed lawn, but somehow the masculine-coded chores just happen to “have a higher monetary value.” I can’t imagine why.

So this particular gap is not just about pay disparities. It’s about how we reproduce a capitalist culture that refuses to account for women’s unpaid household labor and systemically devalues any of the important work — like domestic work and care work — that women have traditionally done for free.

Maya DusenberyMaya would like to bring back the Wages for Housework movement. 

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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