What we know: the dudes are getting better at childcare and housework, and the ladies are easing off. But are they undoing gender? If so, how much? Men have increased the average amount of childcare and housework they do each week from 12, in 1965, to 21, in 2000. Meanwhile, women have decreased their hours in the same tasks from 53 to 41 hours. Also note that these days, women now provide about 43 percent of household income.

So, there’s progress. It even looks like “convergence.” But there’s “something” that keeps dragging us back into the past, into unequal shares of domestic work, that gives us the feeling that there may be more for us to look at than counting hours of care and percentage points of household income.

Take the case of sleep. New research in Gender & Society (abstract) illustrates how even in dual-earner families, men’s sleep takes priority over women’s sleep. Sleep is valuable for short term health and mental functioning and long-term well-being related to things like immune function and maintaining a healthy weight. Sleep matters.

How’d they learn this? Sociologists David Maume, Rachel Sebastian (University of Cincinnati) and Anthony Bardo (Miami University) interviewed 25 white, two-earner, heterosexual families where at least one partner was employed in the food services industry. Partners were interviewed separately in order to learn about how these families organize their sleep routines.

The women wake up more because they are largely the “default parent.” That means they wake up for the kids, for problem solving, for doing things for the men. The men’s paid work (and their need to be rested for it) took priority. The women even expected themselves—and the men they were with expected them—to stick around in the “marital bed” even when the men’s snoring kept them awake. In the mornings, men woke up refreshed, women woke up tired, just in time to rejoin an endless cycle of falling behind and playing catch up again.

Any exceptions? Overall the researchers found that of the 25 couples they interviewed, 4 qualified as equal partners—where men and women were similarly engaged in all kinds of childcare and domestic work. The remainder were couples that were “pragmatic egalitarians”–accepting the practical necessity of both partner’s working. For these couples the men were committed to gender essentialism—a deep seated belief that women really are the appropriate and natural caregivers at home. You know, the “they’re better at it” view. They also found that some of the women held a “family first philosophy” and the rest spent time worrying about their partner’s qualifications for caring.

So, there’s something about sleep here, but there’s something about marriage here, too. While all of these couples had some features that looked like they were “egalitarian,” they weren’t living up to the dream. That seems to be harder than we thought. Back in the 1990s Pepper Schwartz looked for truly egalitarian couples when she did her research on peer marriage. She found a lot of couples who thought they were egalitarian, but they were what she called “near peers,” recreating subtle and not so subtle versions of traditional gender roles. Let’s celebrate the changes since Schwartz’s Love Between Equals – there’s more convergence of roles and opportunities for men and women in families with each passing year. But let’s stay on the look out, as Maume and colleagues did, for the ways that couples recreate gender inequality.

Virginia Rutter