WASHINGTON -- Every few years, social scientists update Americans about how unfair life is -- for women, that is -- by comparing the amount of housework men and women do.
The latest, from the University of Michigan, found that though women's housework load has been reduced by about half and men's has doubled since researchers began measuring such things, life is still a drudge for the fairer sex.
The picture, nevertheless, is far from gloomy. In 1976, women averaged 26 hours of housework per week compared to just six hours for men. In 2005, women averaged 17 hours per week and men 13. Not quite equal, but vastly improved.
Yet, the study's findings have been presented and reported as un-glad tidings for women. The university news release carried the headline: "Exactly how much housework does a husband create?"
This much: "Having a husband creates an extra seven hours a week of housework for women. ... For men, the picture is very different: A wife saves men from about an hour of housework a week."
Needless to say, the hell gets hotter for women when children enter the picture. The only good news is for single men and women, both of whom do less housework -- as long as they stay clear of the altar.
In other words, marry, have a family and be miserable. Remain single and childless and be happy. More or less.
Housework studies are interesting the way astrological readings are. They confirm what we feel without surprising us with much we didn't already know.
Such as: two people make bigger messes than one; households with children are monuments to chaos, if we're having fun; and women tend to do more than men when it comes to traditional household duties for un-mysterious reasons.
One obvious, if partial, reason is that habits change gradually over the course of generations. Another explanation is less palatable, especially if one views housework as comparable to following the elephant walk with a shovel. Men and women have different attitudes toward domestic "chores."I would never say that women enjoy housework more than men do because I have no special affinity for firing squads. But decades of experience suggest that most men don't value the results of housework as much as women do. Could it be their nature?
Let's be clear. Men don't get a pass for being slobs and women shouldn't have to clean up after anyone older than 5. I personally have a special death mask that I wear when the four males with whom I've shared a roof the past 20 years fail to notice that towels are not rugs. One rictal glance their way and tidiness suddenly becomes an irresistible urge.
Even so, they will never meet my standards. If they do, they'll need behavioral therapy and medication.
Exceptions exist, obviously, but studies that seek to quantify household performance as a way of measuring gender equality often miss confounding factors. If men aren't doing what women traditionally have done to the same extent women do, then men are viewed as having failed the goal of an equitable world.
But who decides what is an adequate expenditure of time and energy for a given task?
Before PDAs, organized people had Day-Timer books. Men had little tiny ones that fit in their pocket. Women carried hefty volumes with subject dividers, calendars and shopping lists.
Who do you think was better at recording housework?
Other research, meanwhile, has confirmed that our attempt to make men and women equally domesticated will likely fail. Steven E. Rhoads, public policy professor at the University of Virginia and author of "Taking Sex Differences Seriously," studied professor couples, figuring they were the most likely to seek perfect equality in the home.
Wrong. Men simply weren't as interested in housework as women were and women "simply like child care more than men," the study's authors concluded.
None of which means we shouldn't try harder to be considerate. In dual-career families, sharing housework is logical, fair and ultimately rewarding. Hint: Foreplay to a woman is watching a man take out the trash.
But some things will never be exactly equal until men and women are exactly the same. When that happens, we will doubtless be tidier -- and living alone.