As one can easily tell by looking at the history of this column, I am not only professionally, but also personally interested in studying gender equity. I am toward the end of a master’s degree in educational psychology that focuses primarily on education research. Please enjoy this excerpt from a study I recently completed that explored the possible outcomes of one path toward household gender equity: home economics education.
While it has long been known that women carry the brunt of housework in nuclear families regardless of the trends over the last century of them joining the workforce and creating dual-income households, the issue has been cast into especially harsh light following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an NPR article from spring 2020 titled Pandemic Makes Evident ‘Grotesque’ Gender Inequality In Household Work, culture writer Brigid Schulte stated, “There’s been a lot of invisible labor that women have done, that people, particularly men— even in the same household— haven’t been aware of or haven’t paid attention to. Now that more couples are working from home, [it’s impossible to ignore] the fact that women bear so much more of the burden of child care and housework.” With this inequity in the limelight, it is as important now as ever to look at how we can address root causes of inequality.
Between 1992 and 2002, nation-wide enrollment in family and consumer science courses and programs dropped by 38% and the number of FCS instructors in the US fell by 26%. These numbers have continued to fall: according to the National Center for Education Statistics, it was estimated in 2019 that there were 56.4 million elementary, middle, and high school students in the United States. According to the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences, roughly 5 million of them were active participants in some form of home economics or family and consumer sciences course. In a school system where time and money is increasingly being devoted to state and district mandated testing, so-called “elective” courses which teach crucial life skills are disappearing. This disappearance is theorized to be counter to the positioning of education as a means to becoming a prepared and self-sufficient adult.
By looking at the correlation between home economics education and motivation to complete domestic tasks in one’s adult life, I hoped to find the beginnings of answers to the question of whether or not life skill education makes a significant difference in terms of adulthood outcomes. In addition to questions about education, participants were also asked to answer multiple demographic questions in order to account for familial factors and see if there are more opportunities for specified research on the topic. I hypothesized that the more home economics education an individual received, the more motivated they would be to complete domestic tasks in adulthood.
The ideological support for this study comes largely from research done linking knowledge or skill sets and motivation. Increases in motivation to complete certain tasks directly correlate with increases in interest in said tasks. It has been shown that “[…] for interest to develop, knowledge and value, in addition to affect, need to be present. More specifically, they argued that although affect continues to be important, as interest develops and deepens, knowledge and value develop concurrently (Renninger & Hidi, 2002; Renninger & Riley, in press).” Requiring home economics education in schools would show students that their society places value in the completion of domestic chores while simultaneously giving them the knowledge and resources they need to complete those chores on their own. Following the expectancy value theory of motivation, wherein the more likely a student feels they will succeed at a task, the more motivated they feel to complete it (Eccles and Wigfield 2020), this implies an increase in motivation for household work if young people are taught how to complete the work in question. It is not possible to ensure that students of all genders will receive this education equitably in the home, especially as domestic chores have historically fallen on women’s shoulders. By providing widespread home economics education to all students regardless of identity, the likelihood that students of all identities will be willing to complete the type of work in question increases.
Participants were selected by way of online outreach via social media posts targeted at young adults and middle aged folks living in the United States. 82 individuals completed the survey across a period of three days, with a diverse range of ages, genders, and races represented. 60 respondents identified as cisgender females, 12 as nonbinary or transgender, and 10 as cisgender males. Participants were asked to identify the primary state in the US that they grew up in, and 20 states were represented among the population. Ages ranged from 23 to 75.
Survey results aligned with the expectations that arose from prior research in multiple ways. With the exception of crafting, it was true that the more prepared respondents felt in a given category from their schooling, and the more semesters of home economics or family and consumer sciences education they had, the more motivated they felt to complete tasks from that category in their adult life. The outlier of participants feeling well-prepared to craft in their adult lives by their schooling, but less motivated to complete day to day tasks related to crafting could be due to the prominence of woodshop classes and sewing lessons within the American school system relative to the low incidence of those exact tasks coming up in day-to-day life.
The demographic with the most anticipated and actual differences across categories was gender. These expectations were set by the backing literature and held true. Both overall and for each individual category, women rated their motivation higher than men to complete domestic tasks. The difference was most apparent regarding cooking and crafting, and notably impossible to calculate for childcare, as no male survey respondents said they had childcare duties. One unintended but noteworthy gender-related find from the survey was that participants who identified as nonbinary or transgender demonstrated significantly higher motivation to complete all domestic tasks across the board. Due to the lack of qualitative data collected from participants, it is not possible to clearly extrapolate possible reasons for this difference, but it opens up possibilities for future studies regarding task motivation and participants representing a diverse array of genders.
This study opens up a variety of possibilities for future research, such as investigating the more immediate effects home economics education has on students’ approach to domestic labor and housework while they are studying FCS or immediately after completing the course(s), as well as deepened insight regarding the task motivation of nonbinary and transgender individuals in comparison to cisgender individuals. The hypothesis proposed in this study proves true, and people who receive a substantial amount of home economics education identify themselves as being more motivated to complete necessary domestic chores in adulthood. Concurrently, those who identify as women rate themselves higher regarding domestic task motivation across the board than those who identify themselves as men. These findings, in combination with what we know about expectancy-value theory, show that by increasing the availability of these courses, we can work toward a society in which households are happier, healthier, and more equitable.