Husbands Who Prepare Dinner: a Test of Competing Theories of Marital Role Allocations

Mary Lou Roberts, Boston University
Lawrence H. Wortzel, Boston University
ABSTRACT - The proportion of husbands who prepare dinner for their families, while small, represents a market segment of significant size. There are competing explanations -comparative resources, cultural role expectations and relative investment - to explain marital role allocations. This paper tests these competing explanations for one marital role, that of dinner preparer. Relative investment offers the best explanation for this role.
[ to cite ]:
Mary Lou Roberts and Lawrence H. Wortzel (1980) ,"Husbands Who Prepare Dinner: a Test of Competing Theories of Marital Role Allocations", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 669-671.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 669-671


Mary Lou Roberts, Boston University

Lawrence H. Wortzel, Boston University

[The authors wish to thank Needham, Harper & Steers Advertising, Inc. for providing access to its 1978 Life Style Study data, which were used in this project.]


The proportion of husbands who prepare dinner for their families, while small, represents a market segment of significant size. There are competing explanations -comparative resources, cultural role expectations and relative investment - to explain marital role allocations. This paper tests these competing explanations for one marital role, that of dinner preparer. Relative investment offers the best explanation for this role.


[Sample references only are included in this paper. A more complete list of references may be obtained from the authors.]

There is strong evidence that attitudes of both men and women have shifted in recent years to favor expanded roles for women. The effect that this shift will have on society is both unclear and yet to be completely felt. This paper deals with one area of change that holds great importance for marketers: the assumption of a routine household task, dinner preparation, by men. We will discuss this change in the context of three theories that have been advanced in the literature to explain task sharing.

Although performance of household tasks has traditionally been considered part of the female role, the literature provides the following indications that change may be occurring in both attitudes and behavior:

- Evidence of positive attitudes toward male participation in housework in support of working wives, (Slocum and Nye, 1976).

- Husband's share of housework greater when wives worked than when they did not (Blood and Wolfe, 1969). --Contradictory evidence regarding actual amount of time spent in housework and child care by husbands of working versus non-working wives:

- No difference (Walker and Woods, 1976).

- More time spent by husbands of working wives (Blood and Wolfe, 1960).

The more recent studies do indicate an increase in household task sharing by males, and suggest that the pace of task sharing may accelerate in coming years, assuming, of course, no drop in women's labor force participation rates. However, while these reported summary measures of attitudes toward and performance of household tasks are useful indicators of change, marketers need more task-specific measures in order to understand the nature and magnitude of the apparent trend. Marketers must also understand the reasons behind the trends in order to properly position their products.

A recent national survey offers evidence of significant involvement by married men in one specific household task, dinner preparation. Data from this survey includes the frequency with which husbands and wives (in families where both were present) reported that they prepared dinner for the family. It is certainly not surprising that 95% of the wives reported preparing dinner at least three times a week; but it is remarkable that 20% of the men reported preparing dinner once a week or oftener, and that 12% reported dinner preparations averaging three times a week or oftener. While no specific historical data is available, we believe that these figures represent a substantial increase over the proportions that would have been reported a few years ago. Although the percentages look small in the absolute, the 12% of husbands who cook dinner three times a week or more cook at least 1 billion meals per year, and the additional 20% who cook dinner at least once a week represent at least 500 million more meals.

There are three competing hypotheses which might explain task sharing. This paper will use the performance of the specific task of cooking dinner to test these three hypotheses using data taken from the national study of life styles and consumption behavior. We will next list the three hypotheses and comment on their likely explanatory power in the situation in which they will be tested.


Davis (1977) describes three hypotheses which offer competing explanations for the variability in marital role involvement across families. The major dimensions are described below. We also cite some of the major references to each and add our own comments:

1. Comparative Resources. Wives with higher education or high occupational status have more power to determine the roles they (and therefore their husbands) will assume, but they lose some of their influence during their child-rearing years (Blood & Wolfe, 1960). We believe that a comparative resource explanation is likely to be most powerful for tasks that are considered onerous, and less powerful for tasks that may be more enjoyable.

2. Cultural Role Expectations. External forces such as societal norms prescribe the roles that each partner will play in the marriage. We believe that role expectations have changed dramatically. This belief is supported by innumerable articles in the popular press and by quite a number of attitudinal studies. However, the extent to which attitudinal change has been accompanied by changes in task performance is not clear. Some studies have demonstrated that more equalitarian attitudes were accompanied by more household task sharing (Stafford, et al, 1977). We believe that, at best, the linkage will be weak, perhaps because of a lag between changes in role attitudes and concomitant changes in role performance or perhaps because of familial or situational variables which are more powerful than attitudes. Either condition would weaken correlations between attitudes and behavior.

3. Relative Investment. The spouse with the stronger motivation with respect to the role or task will perform it. Davis (1977) points out that this conception includes two economic theories. One is based on consumption maximization for the household and the other is based on the trading of control over items of little interest for those of greater interest. A study conducted on a related topic, determinants of wives' food shopping strategies (Roberts and Wortzel, 1979), suggests an additional dimension, interest in the task and its outcome. This study found that interest in food preparation was a much stronger determinant of wives' cooking and food shopping strategies than was their employment. It does not violate the spirit of the concept to define relative investment to include interest in food and cooking and therefore we would predict that as these interests increased, so would the taking on of the cooking role.

These three alternatives have all been shown to have predictive power in given situations. Davis (1977) posits that relative investment will be a better predictor in specific situations. We agree, and, add that its predictive power is likely to be highest in situations, such as this one, where the task is really investment-susceptible and can be considered pleasant rather than onerous. We would be less supportive of Davis' position if the task under study was, say, cleaning the toilet bowl. We further hypothesize that the interest dimension of the relative investment hypothesis will be the strongest predictor.


The hypotheses described above were tested using data from the Needham, Harper and Steers Life Style Study. This study uses the Market Facts mail panel. Needham, Harper and Steers describe the data base as follows:

"The Market Facts' mail panel is balanced for geographic region, age, income, and degree of urbanization. The very poor, the very rich, the transient, and minority populations are not well represented in the panel. Needham, Harper and Steers places a further restriction on the sample by requiring all individuals to be married. This latter restriction, coupled with the general characteristics of the Market Facts' mail panel, tends to confine the representativeness of the Life Style sample to stable, middle class households .... (it) has proven to be an effective barometer of mainstream middle America."

The comparative resources hypothesis was tested using demographic data on wives's education, wives' employment and family life cycle stage. The cultural role expectations hypothesis was tested using attitudinal items from the AIO section of the questionnaire. We selected a wide range of items which we thought might constitute acceptable measures of cultural role expectation dimensions and then factor analyzed them, using varimax rotation. Finally, we conducted a reliability analysis (Cronbach's alpha) on each factor. Five factors resulted, which we labeled Conservative, Swinger, Traditionalist About Female Sex Role, Cosmopolitan and Self-Assured. The five factors together accounted for 72% of the variance in the data. The individual items making up each factor are shown in Table 1 along with their factor loadings and other appropriate statistics. Scores were constructed for each factor using the unit score method, and the scores were then equalized for number of items so that means could be compared across factors. The Traditionalist About Female Sex Role and Conservative factors provide reasonably direct measures of cultural role expectations, while the other three factors can be considered to measure the propensity to be culturally "role free".

The relative investment hypothesis was tested with three scales constructed from additional AIO items found in the questionnaire. These scales were composed of food-related, cooking-related and home cleanliness-related items. The home cleanliness scale was included to provide another dimensional measure of investment in the home. These scales were constructed, insofar as possible, using accepted principles of test construction as described in Standards for Educational and Psychological Tests (1974). Each scale was analyzed for internal consistency with inconsistent items being removed until a final iteration indicated that no further improvement in reliability was possible. These three scales and their associated reliability statistics are shown in Table 2.

The measure of dinner cooking frequency used in testing all three hypotheses was the response to the question "how frequently do you cook dinner for the whole family?'' collapsed into the categories of "never or infrequently'', "once or twice a week", and "three times a week or more".


The reader should be aware that all of the data we shall analyze are data reported only by husbands. We cannot, therefore compare the reports of husbands with those of their wives. However, we can and will compare data among husbands. At the very least we will be analyzing relationships among husbands' self-reports of dinner preparation. Although there are well-known problems associated with using the self-report technique in family research, the questions did not require extensive recall and did not appear threatening, so we believe resultant bias, if any, to be minimal.





We shall first compare each item or scale representing the three hypotheses against frequency of dinner preparation in order to gain some understanding of the relative predictive power of each hypothesis.



Table 3 shows the relationship between the comparative resources measures and frequency of dinner preparation. The relationships are presented as cross-tabulations because the relative resource measures (although scalable) are most easily understood as discrete categories. The results for all three measures are statistically significant but the relationships, with one exception, are neither strong nor consistent with the comparative resource hypothesis. This hypothesis would predict that the higher the educational level and occupational status of the wife, the greater would be her ability to compel her husband to perform household tasks such as cooking. Husbands with wives who are homemakers are less likely to prepare dinner for their families than are husbands of employed wives. However, this table shows that husbands of high school graduates prepare dinner frequently more often. It also shows an equal proportion of husbands of professionals and non-professionals preparing dinner frequently. The higher frequency of never preparing dinner in the two later life cycle stages is consistent with other findings, but the increase in the combined frequency of the last two columns from 'no children present' (32%) to 'preschoolers present' (36%) contradicts previous analyses (Blood and Wolfe, 1960) in which a lower frequency of task assumption by husbands was found in early lifecycle stages. These data, then, provide little support for the comparative resource hypothesis.



Table 4 presents the relationship between the five scales used to measure cultural role expectations and frequency of dinner preparation. The relationships are analyzed using one-way ANOVA. The relationship between frequency of dinner preparation and each of the scales is statistically significant either at .05 or .01. However, the differences between the means of each dinner preparation group are small, usually 0.2 or 0.3, and the relationships are not always linear. Intuitively, the Traditionalist About Female Sex Role scale seems likely to be most predictive of men's willingness to assume a traditional household task. However, the difference in valence on this scale between men who never cook and those who cook frequently is minimal. It is difficult to conclude, on the basis of these results, that there is a strong relationship between cultural role expectations and dinner preparation, given the particular measures of cultural role expectations that were used.



The relationship between the relative investment scales and frequency of dinner preparation is presented in Table 5. All three scales show statistically significant differences and scores are higher for all three scales among husbands who prepare dinner most frequently. Though the progression is not linear, all three scales break into two sets. For the home cleanliness and food related scales, the 'never prepare' and '1-2 times a week' are similar. For the cooking related scale it is the '1-2 times' and '3 times or more' groups which are similar. The very high F score obtained with the cooking related scale underscores the strong relationship between task-related attitudes and actual task performance.

It appears that the relative investment hypothesis is the one most strongly supported on the basis of bivariate analyses of these data. However, multivariate analyses should be a stronger test of the relative predictive power of the three hypotheses. Consequently, we performed a set of multiple regressions using frequency of dinner preparation as the dependent variable and each group of hypothesis-associated variables in turn as independent variables.

The best question that could be produced for the comparative resources hypothesis had an R2 of .06 using both spouse's occupation (Beta .15, t 9.14) and spouse's education (Beta -.03, t 3.59) as independent variables. A multiple regression in which all the independent variables are statistically significant could not be calculated using the cultural role expectations measures. The best two single predictors were the Traditionalist About Female Sex Role and Cosmopolitan scales, each of which produced an R2 of .06. Relative investment measures produced an R2 of .13 using only the cooking related scale; neither of the other two scales added significantly to the proportion of explained variance.



Finally, a stepwise multiple regression was conducted using all of the variables and scales representing each of the three hypotheses as potential independent variables. The result, presented in Table 6, is an equation with three significant independent variables, uncorrelated with each ether. The cooking-related scale (relative investment) accounts for almost twice as much variance as spouse's occupation and education combined.

These results confirm that relative investment is the more important predictor, but they also indicated that the comparative resource theory is not quite dead. Perhaps the best interpretation of these results is that interest or investment constitutes a high propensity to take on a role, but that "muscle" heightens the degree to which the propensity results in action.


The results do support the relative investment hypothesis to a greater extent than they support the competing hypotheses. However, we are reluctant to generalize from this study to include all other household tasks. Cooking is somewhat unique among household tasks in that there can be a significant amount of intrinsic satisfaction attached to using the results. There are likely to be other similarly satisfying household tasks, such as refinishing furniture, planting a garden or perhaps even hanging wallpaper. We would expect similar results for these tasks.

There are, however, a wide range of other tasks which are onerous to perform and/or from which the results do not provide much satisfaction. In these circumstances we would expect a comparative resource explanation to be more powerful. The exception to this might be household tasks related to dirt removal or to the neatening of clutter. There are evidently men (and women) with high investments in household cleanliness and neatness. A thorough test of the three competing hypotheses would require the study of a broad range of specific tasks, but might be very rewarding as it would provide a basis for generalizing about the nature of tasks and the reasons for sharing.

Husbands who prepare dinner frequently should be worth further specific study. It may be misleading to assume that men who cook dinner do it in the same way that women do. Two extreme hypotheses might be either that men are 'special occasion/gala meal' cooks or that they respond to situations in which cooking is a necessity by resorting to the contents of the freezer and to the use of a can opener. In between lie a range of possibilities which would make them more or less similar to female cooks. These possibilities might focus on differing repertoires of foods and/or on the use of different techniques.

Whatever the nature of men's cooking activities, this potential market is too large to be ignored. We should not assume that men respond to the same product positionings as women do or even use the same foods, spices, and utensils. It also may be incorrect to assume that, because the husband prepares dinner, he also decides on the menu or shops for food. It should be worthwhile to study in some detail the comparative performance of men and women in deciding on, shopping for and preparing family meals. There is every reason to believe that husband's involvement in these roles will continue to increase and therefore should be considered in marketing plans. Knowing just how to consider them will be worthwhile.


Blood, Robert O. and Donald Wolfe (1960), Husbands and Wives, New York: Free Press.

Davis, Harry L. (1977), "Decision Making Within the Household," in Robert Ferber ed. Selected Aspects of Consumer Behavior, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office.

Roberts, Mary Lou and Lawrence H. Wortzel (1979), "New Life Style Determinants of Women's Food Shopping Behavior,'' Journal of Marketing, 43, 28-39.

Slocum, W. and F. I. Nye (1976), "Provider and Housekeeper Roles," in Role Structure and Analysis of the Family, ed. F. I. Nye, Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, Inc.

Stafford, Rebecca, et al. (1977), "The Division of Labor Among Cohabiting and Married Couples," Journal of Marriage and The Family, 39,43-57.

Walker, K. and M. Woods (1976), "Time Use: A Measure of Household Production of Goods and Services," Washington, D.C.: American Home Economics Association.