Hacking Inequality at Home

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

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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.

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