A divorce ruling in China has intensified the debate around gender inequality at home

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The Economist explains

ECONOMISTS HAVE long tried to calculate the value of unpaid housework. In terms of inputs and outputs, the contributions of a stay-at-home parent can easily be overlooked, hidden in the folds of freshly ironed shirts and the contents of a full belly. The courts, too, have tried their hand at putting a price on housework. Recent divorce cases show they are willing to hand out extra cash to the spouse who does more of the cleaning up.

Last month China was shocked when a court ordered a man to pay his wife $7,700 for housework during their five-year marriage. The wife, known as Ms Wang, told a judge in Beijing that she “looked after the child and managed the household chores while [her husband] did not care about or participate in any other household affairs besides going to work”. On average, Chinese women spend four hours a day on housework, compared with about an hour and a half for men. (The gap is even wider in India: five hours for women to half an hour for men.)

The court ruling was widely celebrated. But on Weibo, a social-media site, many users were disappointed with the amount awarded to Ms Wang. One user commented: “Women should never be stay-at-home wives. When you divorce, you are left with nothing whatsoever.” The government has adopted policies aimed at promoting co-parenting and protecting women’s rights. Most provinces, for example, have in recent years introduced paid paternity leave. But many people argue that it is too short—an average of just two weeks—to free new mothers, who receive a minimum of 98 days, from child care.

In the West, where the starting principle is an equal split of the couple’s assets on divorce, claims for extra compensation are given short shrift by the courts. Housework is seen as equivalent to financial contributions, so neither spouse loses out financially by doing more cooking and ironing than their partner. That being said, some countries, such as Britain, France and Spain, do allow for extra compensation for marriage-generated disadvantages.

In Britain, the concept of compensation fell out of use for over a decade before resurfacing in 2020, bringing the question of pay for housework to the fore. Last year a woman was awarded £400,000 ($520,000) for giving up her legal career to focus on the family. When her marriage broke down and the couple’s assets were divided, she asked for an additional sum to reflect the sacrifice she had made by cutting her career short. The judges agreed, but only because she was already a high earner and could prove she had been on track to become one of her firm’s leading moneymakers. She was compensated not for the housework, but her forgone legal career. The judge said that “in many of these cases, the assets will be such that any loss is already covered by the applicant’s sharing claim.” So Ms Wang’s claim for extra compensation would probably have failed anywhere in Europe. But she may never have felt the need to make it in the first place.

Many women have no option but to leave the workforce when they start a family—the cost of child care might outweigh the benefits of a second salary, particularly if working hours and earnings are reduced to accommodate family responsibilities. Legal and financial recognition of unpaid domestic work would change this calculation. But it would be simpler (and fairer) to share domestic burdens more evenly. The division of housework is also unequal in the West, with women shouldering the majority of domestic chores and child-care responsibilities. And family-leave policies are similarly disproportionate, with paternity leave being an average of just 1.7 weeks across the European Union’s 27 countries. More important than writing new rules about compensation for housework is strengthening existing ones that promote shared parental leave. With both spouses more involved in parenting, family responsibilities can be shared. Why wait until the divorce to quibble over who did the housework?