Why is the household still divided so unequally? Scientists have a new theory that provides an answer.
She watches him spread a piece of bread in the kitchen using the work surface which is covered in crumbs. He has to see the surface, after all he processes his bread on it – and yet he doesn’t seem to make a move to tend to the crumbs. As soon as it’s greased, he leaves the room with the bread and plate and punishes the crumbs with ignorance. “How can it be,” she asks herself, slightly indignant, “that he didn’t see these crumbs?”
Later she asks him to tidy up the kitchen and especially to clean the work surface. “Why are you emphasizing that?” he asks innocently. And she wonders what exactly went wrong here and why. And it is precisely these and related questions that some scientists also addressed in one current study after: How is it that in the 21st century we still have such an unequal division of household chores?
The household: Unfair since childhood
According to that European Institute for Gender Equality Domestic work is the most unequal of the three most common forms of unpaid care work (behind childcare and long-term care for the elderly). Employed women spend almost two and a half hours a day on housework – compared to around one and a half hours for men. The differences are greatest in couples with children, the institute continues.
And the status quo is passed from generation to generation: As research shows, the parental role model is the main mechanism for entrenching gender roles in relation to housework. Fathers in particular tell their sons how to behave in the household.
The work surface sends a request – but women tend to understand it
Children are taught early on who has which tasks in the household – or who tends to withdraw. Building on this, some scientists also took a closer look at the gender-specific differences in households for another study. They put forward the “Theory of Affordance”.
As “spectrum” describes in the Lexicon of Psychology, it is a term coined by Hames J. Gibson and derived from the English word “afford”. Affordance, according to Gibson, is “nature’s offer” or a “stimulus for action” based on the information we have about an object. For example, a chair asks us to sit down, a switch offers to turn it, etc.
And what call to action do women see when they see a dirty surface? “Wipe off”. And what do men see? A crumbly work surface. The pandemic in particular would have raised two questions in relation to these perceptions:
- Despite economic and cultural advances, why do women continue to do most of the housework and childcare?
- Why do so many men believe that housework is more evenly distributed than it actually is?
“When asking these questions, many point to the fulfillment of traditional gender roles and to various economic factors such as the fact that women are more likely to use flexible working hours to take care of children,” explains Dr. Tom McClelland from Cambridge University. However, this would not explain why the unequal distribution continued even at the peak of the pandemic, when men and women had to stay at home.
One from “The New York Times” conducted survey confirms the discrepancy: 70 percent of the women surveyed said they were responsible for all or most of the housework during lockdown, with 66 percent saying the same about childcare. Shares that roughly correspond to those of “normal times,” as the newspaper writes.
Is inequality set in stone?
Girls and women are more likely to be expected to help around the house – both sexes learn at an early age which tasks they have to fulfill and which they do not. This has a major impact on the rest of her life: A woman would be more likely to see “affordances” for certain domestic tasks upon entering the kitchen – the dishes lying around send the message to be “washed up”, the half-empty fridge wants to be “filled”. A man, on the other hand, may only see dishes in the sink and a refrigerator, but doesn’t feel a mental “jerk” to do anything.
“Affordances draw our attention, are tasks that can irritate us or distract us from other plans until they are completed. If you resist, it can lead to a perceived tension,” explains co-author Prof. Paulina Sliwa . That would put many women in a quandary: “Either inequality of housework or cognitive load.”
So is gender inequality deadlocked? Not at all, according to the researchers. It shouldn’t be about acquitting the man of household chores. Every person – regardless of gender – can easily notice what needs to be done by thinking instead of just seeing. And: Just because women may tend to be more sensitive to household issues through social upbringing, does not mean that they have a “natural affinity” for household tasks.
“We can change the way we perceive the world through continuous conscious effort and the cultivation of habits,” explains McClelland. “For example, a man could decide to sweep for crumbs every time he waits for the kettle to boil. This would not only help them complete the tasks they can’t see, but also gradually retrain their cognition.”
Sources used: onlinelibrary.wiley.com, nytimes.com, cam.ac.uk, eige.europa.eu, Spektrum.de, sciencedirect.com