Domestic chores overwhelmingly fall to women in most households. Find out the psychology behind this disparity and why it doesn’t give men a free pass to avoid housework.
A few years ago, I was chatting online with a female friend while doing my laundry. She said to me, “You should go fold and hang up your clothes right away, otherwise they’ll get wrinkled.” My half-joking reply was, “What’s your point?” She fired back an eye-roll emoji and changed the subject.
I grew up in a house with my dad, my mom and my two brothers. As the only female in the home, this left my mother in a difficult position.
Surrounded by men, she couldn’t seem to impress on us the need to do things like laundry, scrubbing the floor, vacuuming and putting things away. I like to think I’ve improved on this shortcoming, if only by paying for a cleaning service, but domestic disorder seemed to trouble my mother in ways to which the rest of us couldn’t relate.
Seventy Percent of Women Say They Do Most Domestic Tasks
Apparently, our household was far from unique in this way. For example, in a Morning Consult poll for the New York Times, 70% of women reported being fully or mostly responsible for domestic tasks at home.
Only about 20% of men said their spouses did most household tasks. Another 20% of husbands claimed they did most of the housework. Only 2% of women agreed with that.
Professor Tom McClelland is a lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on the philosophy of the human mind.
Possibilities for Action We Use to Interpret the World
Most recently, he’s been studying the concept of “affordances” for mental action. By affordances, philosophers and psychologists mean the possibilities for action we often use to interpret the world around us.
For example, we might see a tree as a climbing affordance. When I see a guitar, in my mind, it’s a music-making affordance, and so on.
Professor McClelland teamed up with Professor Paulina Sliwa of the University of Vienna’s Faculty of Philosophy and Education. She studies moral philosophy, especially what excuses tell us about our sense of responsibility.
Men and Women See Different Possibilities for Action
The two researchers are trying to find out what’s behind the well-documented inequality in household labour. They’ve just published an article in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research arguing that culture conditions men and women to see different possibilities for action, even when they share the same home.
Their paper points out that different circumstances can change these perceptions. Men who take extended parental leave, for example, begin to build up the same mental associations that women typically have about the need to do housework.
People were hoping that the pandemic lockdowns would change the traditional domestic disparity, but the data suggest otherwise. Objective time and motion studies consistently show that women do much more housework than men.
“Many Men Continued to Be Oblivious of this Imbalance”
As Professor McClelland explained, “The fact that stark inequalities in domestic tasks persisted during the pandemic, when most couples were trapped inside, and that many men continued to be oblivious of this imbalance, means this is not the full story.” The missing element of that story seems to be affordances.
“This is not just looking at the shape and size of a tree and then surmising you can climb it, but actually seeing a particular tree as climbable, or seeing a cup as drink-from-able,” Professor Sliwa explained. “Neuroscience has shown that perceiving an affordance can trigger neural processes preparing you for physical action. This can range from a slight urge to overwhelming compulsion, but it often takes mental effort not to act on an affordance.”
It’s important to realize that affordances differ between individuals. For example, since I took guitar lessons as a child, my perception of an instrument’s music-making affordance would likely be more intense than that of someone who’s never tried it.
Affordances Differ Between Individuals
I remember going hiking with some friends when one of them mentioned that a cliff we were passing would be perfect for rock climbing. Having never tried rock climbing, that thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.
“Social norms shape the affordances we perceive, so it would be surprising if gender norms do not do the same,” said Professor McClelland. “If we apply affordance perception to the domestic environment and assume it is gendered, it goes a long way to answering both questions of disparity and invisibility.”
The researchers call their explanation the “gendered affordance perception hypothesis.” It seems to be why men can see crumbs on the kitchen counter, dishes in the sink or muddy footprints on the floor without them registering mentally, while women feel compelled to clean them up.
“Tasks May Irritate the Perceiver Until Done”
“Affordances pull on your attention. Tasks may irritate the perceiver until done, or distract them from other plans. If resisted, it can create a felt tension,” Professor Sliwa said. “This puts women in a catch-22 situation: either inequality of labour or inequality of cognitive load.”
That’s not much of a choice. Women with a strong housework affordance can either put up with doing more work than their partners or put up with the stress of leaving the work undone.
Of course, there’s a third alternative. Men can crawl out of their man-caves and start doing their share of these household chores.
Hypothesis Doesn’t Give Men a Free Pass
This new affordance hypothesis doesn’t give men a free pass from doing their share of domestic chores. There’s no reason we men can’t look around the house and think about what tasks we could be doing.
In the same way, the mere fact that women are more sensitive to affordances around the house doesn’t make those tasks “women’s work.” We need to change, not only to improve our domestic lives, but as a step toward greater social justice.
Tendencies Aren’t “Natural” or “Hard-Wired”
These tendencies aren’t “natural” or “hard-wired” into our brains. They’re merely the result of what we happened to see growing up, and we can change our thinking patterns. In the immortal words of Red Green’s The Man’s Prayer, “I’m a man, but I can change, if I have to, I guess.”
The research also makes me think about something else I’ve noticed in my travels to various offices over the years. Why do so many women gravitate to roles as administrative or executive assistants?
Professor Sliwa concluded with what may be a potential explanation. “Our focus has been on physical actions such as sweeping or wiping, but gendered affordance perceptions could also apply to mental actions such as scheduling and remembering.”
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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