Decades’ worth of research on couples points to the disproportionate frequency with which women perform housework as compared to men. But a groundbreaking series of new studies from Columbia Business School and William Paterson University suggests that women also take on more of couples’ “mental housework” – the remembering of daily errands and to-dos.
In a five-study series chronicled in the journal Sex Roles, researchers found that members of both sexes assume that women will do more to help their partners remember outstanding tasks. That assumption, researchers say, ties back to the stereotype that women are communal at their core and expected to be compassionate, nurturing, and generally concerned with others’ needs.
“That assumption – the widely-held belief that women are more inclined to provide mnemonic assistance to their partners – translates into an expectation that they should do so,” says co- author Janet Ahn, professor of psychology at William Paterson University. “Women feel they have to keep track of both the joint responsibilities in a relationship and their partners’ personal to-dos.”
The trio of researchers, including Ahn, Malia Mason, professor of management at Columbia Business School, and Elizabeth Haines, professor of psychology at William Paterson University, then set out to identify the frequency by which men and women issued reminders to their significant others, as well as who benefitted more from those reminders.
Their research found that men are far less likely to offer reminders to a partner, and when they do offer such assistance, it tends to be for errands in which they are stakeholders, such as: “He reminded me that the office Christmas party was coming up and that I had said I would buy him a new suit jacket.”
This differs from when women are providing reminders: In these cases, women issuing reminders involved errands that would benefit their partners, such as: “She reminded me about one of my work deadlines."
“The less selfless the reminder, the more likely that it was issued by a man,” Professor Haines explains. “The results certainly suggest that men benefit more from the collective nature of couples’ mental work than their female partners do.”
The researchers also note that there are risks associated with being the repository for other people’s to-dos.
Becoming overburdened with one’s own and other’s outstanding to-dos may lead to an increase in distractedness and anxiousness, hindering women from performing an ongoing task efficiently, the researchers argue.
Moreover, they suggest that the higher societal expectation for women to be communal may lead them to take on a disproportionate amount of mnemonic work not just in romantic relationships, but in all relationships, including the ones they have at work. Women may be driven to take on more workplace “administrivia,” leaving them less time for more meaningful projects.
“Just as implementing housework carries opportunity costs related to keeping you from being able to complete another task, so too does keeping track of work mentally,” Professor Mason says. “Thinking about a partner’s to-dos means spending mental resources that could otherwise be spent thinking about one’s own needs and responsibilities.”
About Columbia Business School
Columbia Business School is the only world-class, Ivy League business school that delivers a learning experience where academic excellence meets with real-time exposure to the pulse of global business. Led by Dean Glenn Hubbard, the School’s transformative curriculum bridges academic theory with unparalleled exposure to real-world business practice, equipping students with an entrepreneurial mindset that allows them to recognize, capture, and create opportunity in any business environment. The thought leadership of the School’s faculty and staff, combined with the accomplishments of its distinguished alumni and position in the center of global business, means that the School’s efforts have an immediate, measurable impact on the forces shaping business every day. To learn more about Columbia Business School’s position at the very center of business, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
About William Paterson University
William Paterson University is a leading public university in New Jersey with nearly 11,000 students and 73,000 living alumni. The third oldest public institution in the state, the University was chartered in 1855 and offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degree programs through five academic colleges: Arts and Communication, Cotsakos College of Business, Education, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Science and Health. Located on 370 hilltop acres in Wayne, the University offers a wide range of learning opportunities in its classrooms, nationally recognized science laboratories and state-of-the-art broadcast studios. The institution’s 410 full-time faculty are highly distinguished and diverse scholars and teachers, including 41 Fulbright scholars and recipients of numerous other awards, grants, and fellowships. Learn more at www.wpunj.edu.
About the researcher
Malia Mason studies negotiations and social judgment and decision making in one line of work. In a second, she studies how people regulate their...Read more.