In 2011, Eve Rodsky started interviewing couples about how they ran their households.
She’d ask them: “Do you have explicitly defined expectations? Do you have fairness and transparency? Do you know your role?”
“Everybody laughed at me, and they said, ‘Of course not,'” Rodsky said.
At the time, Rodsky — who has a Harvard Law degree and spent years working as a mediator — was starting the research for what would become her 2019 book, “Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do.” In her research, which included interviewing 500 couples, she found that American women in heterosexual relationships were the “shefaults” for most domestic tasks in their home, spending hours more than men per week on housework — even as their workforce participation, salaries and education rates have increased over the decades.
Now, Rodsky’s work has inspired a new documentary, “Fair Play” — available on demand and in select theaters — that pulls the curtain back on how Rodsky and some of the couples she researched confronted and managed inequities within their own households using the system she outlines in her book. That system, Rodsky said, requires “explicitly defined expectations: It’s knowing your role, it’s fairness and transparency.” (There’s also a card game component that allows couples to see exactly who does 100 different household tasks.)
Feminist sociologists, including Arlie Hochschild and Arlene Kaplan Daniels, had been researching gendered inequities in household labor for decades, coining terms like “the second shift” and “invisible work” to describe the extra burden that women tend to carry. But nobody had given couples a tool kit on how to actually create change in their homes, Rodsky said.
The documentary is written, produced and directed by filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, founder of the Representation Project, an organization that uses media to challenge gender stereotypes, and first partner of California (her husband is Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom), in partnership with Reese Witherspoon’s media company, Hello Sunshine. Featuring a mix of couples who try to transform their households while balancing parenting and marriage with various kinds of paid work — one couple includes a delivery worker and a farm worker, while the others work corporate jobs — the film “will hopefully give people a window into a world that is possible,” Siebel Newsom said.
The Washington Post recently sat down with Rodsky and Siebel Newsom to understand how they envision what more equitable households might look like in practice, how they run their own homes (and share the work), and the first step couples should take to get closer to “fair play.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: Eve, one of your “rules for fair play” that the film explores is that couples have to accept that their time is equally valuable if they want to make their homes more equitable. Why does that matter for women in heterosexual relationships especially?
Rodsky: We’ve been conditioned to value [women’s time] less than men’s time. And we, as a society, we protect men’s time — and that was something that I was finding over and over again as I was interviewing people.
I tried to read every book I could find on gendered division of labor, and what was very clear was that if women entered a male profession, salaries automatically come down — that’s called occupational segregation. That’s society telling women their time is less valuable.
We say things to women like, “Breastfeeding is free,” when it’s 1,800 hours a year. … We internalize these messages that our time is less valuable, so then we start giving ourselves excuses for why we’re the ones picking up the kids from school, why we’re the ones sacrificing sleep, why we’re the ones making kids’ lunches, why we’re the ones filling out the school forms — because we devalue our time.
For me, it was the excuse that I was a better multitasker, that I could do it better, I could do it faster, somehow I was wired differently for care. … There’s just a different expectation over how women are supposed to spend their time.
When I started to tell people I was taking Sundays off from caregiving responsibilities and [my husband] Seth had my kids — I triggered a lot of people: … neighbors, people at Starbucks, friends.
Q: The film also explores, in part, how societal expectations for men, and about masculinity, have to change to facilitate equity at home. How do you think those shifts need to happen and who can help facilitate them?
Siebel Newsom: One of the reasons Eve’s family was so important for me to spend time with [for the film] is I love how she parents, and that Seth is becoming a role model in this regard. And her sons are so beautiful in their understanding of the value of care work and how responsible it is to take responsibility — full responsibility — at home. So the more we can have young men practicing care, and showing that it’s cool to take responsibility at home, … the better off we’re going to be as a society.
Q: How have each of you coordinated household labor so that it’s more fairly split, or shared?
Rodsky: [My husband] genuinely believed that “extracurricular sports,'” taking that on, meant bringing our kids to the Little League field on Saturdays. And so … I had to explain to him that taking [that on] was being on an 85-person text chain, coordinating three practices a week plus getting to the field, [packing] day-of sunscreen, water bottle, equipment, ordering [equipment] on Amazon or borrowing it. … When he realized that that was “extracurricular sports,” not only was it incredibly eye-opening for him, but I got six hours of my week back.
That’s how we started. We started really small … and then over time it grew.
Siebel Newsom: One of the things I feel like is essential for all couples is to start with communication and the daily practice of time communicating. … That was transformative for me, and it’s been hard because my husband is the governor of California and runs the fifth-largest economy in the world and it’s just been crisis after crisis. We started with an energy crisis, and then a pandemic and then wildfires. … So I’ve had to give him a little grace, but along the way people have encouraged me to ask for more. … It’s just a slightly different dance, for me, just with the nature of a 24/7 job.
Q: The film also features LGBTQ couples who talk about how the nature of their partnerships allow them to shed, or more easily confront, gendered expectations around household labor, which often results in a more balanced division of housework. What do you think non-LGBTQ viewers can learn from them?
Rodsky: I was really interested in what happens if you don’t have assumptions, if you take gender out of the assumption. … There were some [LGBTQ] couples [in my research] who were very much still being burdened by hetero, cisgender norms, because they were trading in the assumption of gender for money — the partner who made more did nothing, or less, and it was very frustrating for the other partner. But I’d say [in] the majority of my LGBTQIA interviews, including trans families, I did see more structured decision-making [around household chores], because the assumption of gender is taken out of it.
Siebel Newsom: To me, what really stood out was that they learned to communicate earlier and deal with these emotional issues — these issues that touch on sort of inadequacies and strengths and shortcomings and failures — and I thought, “Wow, this is a lesson for all of us.” Communication is critical. Eve says it. … What we’re hoping to inspire is the first step of communication, so that you can know where you are. And then it’s about taking on the full ownership mind-set, transparency and accountability.