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Published: Wednesday, 5/4/2011

Sexes split on work at home

Women undervalue duties, men overrate them, study says

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

If you're stuck still wondering what to get your mother for Mother's Day this Sunday, there are economists who would suggest a decent hourly wage for her work.

An updated nationwide survey of more than 1,200 adults find that women -- especially those of minor children -- typically undervalue the work they do in the home by as much as 37 percent, while men tend to overvalue their contributions by an average of 23 percent.

The survey, conducted in March for Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co., found that both men and women placed a $25,000 average value on their respective contributions to their homes. But when analysts studied the time each invested and the work they were doing, they found that the median value of services contributed by women to the home was $34,256, versus $19,322 for men.

For Angie Gerweck, a 44-year-old mother of one teenager and two pre-teens from Monroe, the time invested in parenting is time well spent, even if it is an unpaid second job.

"If I average it out, it's six to eight [extra] hours a day. With three kids, it's never-ending laundry, and then there's all the running, the picking up from track practice or dropping off at driver's [education]," Mrs. Gerweck said. Her favorite Mother's Day presents have been "when the kids have made me breakfast, and their homemade cards. And even without pay, a day off is always good."

The concept of placing a value on domestic activities is known as "home production" -- the things people do at home, instead of going out into the marketplace for those services, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland said. It's the value of doing one's own laundry, or mowing a yard, or doing the dishes, or taking care of one's own children instead of hiring someone else to do those things. Economists can use these numbers to gauge, to a point, the value that people place on their own labors.

According to the Census Bureau, 54 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States were mothers in 2008. An estimated 5 million women were stay-at-home moms in 2010, down from 5.1 million in 2009 and 5.3 million in 2008. In 2010, 23 percent of married-couple family groups with children under 15 had a stay-at-home mother, up from 21 percent in 2000. An estimated 9.9 million single mothers were living with children younger than 18 in 2010, up from 3.4 million in 1970.

Economists argue that work inside and outside the home can be weighed against each other monetarily, without crossing into the emotional minefield of the intangible values of each.

"It's what we call the 'marginal individual,' " argued economist Peter Rupert of the University of California at Santa Barbara. "What you can think of is that, at the margin, people are going to value the home production equal to the market production, and make their decisions about what to do according to those values. There are going to be some women that value the home sector so high that they would never leave to go into the market sector, and others" who do just the opposite.

Mr. Rupert said that -- not counting external circumstances such as involuntary unemployment -- women and men make value decisions about their home lives based on the value that they place on work in the home and the time doing that work.

"There was a huge shift in women starting in the market sector in the 1950s and 1960s, and it's kind of flat now," Mr. Rupert said. "Some people believe that with the invention of microwave ovens and day care options, it's easier for women to leave the home sector now." He said pay disparity between men and women has also been evaporating over time, though women still, on average, earn slightly more than 80 percent of the average man's pay.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@theblade.com or 419-724-6091.



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