IT'S 5 p.m. Across the country millions of wives are rushing home from work with an age-old question on their minds: ``What'll I fix for dinner?'' At the same hour, millions of husbands are walking through the door with a similar - but vastly different - question on their lips: ``What's for dinner, Hon?''
For an overwhelming majority of two-income families, it is still the husband's privilege to ask that question - and the wife's responsibility to answer it.
A recent New York Times poll reports that 85 percent of working wives do almost all the cooking. A similar survey by Working Mother magazine puts the figure at 77 percent.
A generation after the women's movement began seeking equal opportunity in the workplace, no one has yet found a way to ensure equal responsibility in the home.
To be fair, there has been progress.
If these surveys were tabulated by age groups, they would certainly show that young men whose wives work are far more likely to cook - or at least help - than their fathers, whose culinary skills may center on such ``macho'' tasks as carving the Thanksgiving turkey or grilling the Fourth of July steaks.
Still, even ``progressive'' husbands can be guilty of backsliding. Jeanne Deschamps Stanton, a member of the faculty at the Simmons Graduate School of Management, has interviewed hundreds of professional women on the subject of family and career. She finds that even when young couples share cooking and cleaning duties in the early years of marriage, the ``sharing system'' begins to fall apart once children arrive and the amount of cooking and cleaning increases.
Women in their 30s and 40s who interrupt their careers for children also report that husbands who were once ``liberal minded'' often become unwilling to reorient themselves to domestic duties when the wife returns to work.
``Currently many men have, to some degree, a liberal attitude about women and careers,'' Mrs. Stanton explains in her new book, ``Being All Things'' (Doubleday, $16.95). ``And because women married to these men tend to take their husbands' liberal attitude at face value, the majority of working women married to liberal husbands are in trouble. `Go ahead, have a career,' these husbands will say. `You're smart, you're capable.'''
But, she continues, ``the cost of a working wife is, for most husbands, too high, and in practice they will not give her any kind of meaningful support at home. So women are left with their traditional duties as well as their new professional ones, and the burden of both is, for many, too much to bear.''
That burden is not made easier by subtle but powerful social messages that work against egalitarian relationships.
In TV commercials, for instance, who still serves up most of the rice or the cereal? Right - Mom, not Dad. The closest thing to a role reversal appears in an ad for Mrs. Smith's Pie in Minutes, when a slightly bewildered-looking husband zaps a frozen cherry pie in the microwave for his wife's birthday.
Traditional roles are further reinforced by commercials that define the kitchen as female territory. One ad features a woman boasting about ``my new dishwasher.'' Another shows a woman using a cleaning product while a male voiceover refers to ``her stovetop.''
Comics and movies send other confusing signals. From the lazy househusband in the comic strip ``Adam'' to the klutzy stay-at-home dad in the movie ``Mr. Mom,'' the unstated message is the same: It is easier for a woman with an attach'e case to succeed in the office than it is for a man with an apron to function in the kitchen. Even the enormously popular ``Three Men and a Baby'' doesn't present a convincing case for male domesticity. These guys specialize in nurturing, not nutrition.
Other obstacles to domestic equality are logistical. Cooking dinner together may sound chummy, but many kitchens will accommodate only one cook at a time.
A few designers specialize in planning dual-career kitchens, complete with his-and-her work stations and twin sinks. Yet most homes do not have the space - nor most homeowners the budgets - for a redesign.
And so for now, 4 out of 5 working wives will undoubtedly continue their solo performances in front of the stove, microwave, and sink.
Alternatives do exist, of course - for a price. The market in prepared foods is booming. And frozen dinners, pizza, and takeout Chinese food have become staples on many dinner tables.
Residents of Minneapolis can also call The Order Inn, a new gourmet delivery service. Within 20 minutes a bow-tied driver with a refrigerated van will appear at the door, offering such specialties as lasagna, prime rib, and white-chocolate, macadamia-nut cheesecake. The experimental service, created by General Mills, is designed for the ``time-short, dollar-rich'' customer.
If all else fails, a wife too weary to cook after a day at work can signal that the kitchen is closed by simply donning a shiny red apron from Bloomingdale's that reads: ``Guess what I made for dinner? Reservations.''