Labour Of Love

5th October 2012

Claire Moulds considers the cleaning conundrum: is it really true that a woman’s work is never done?

So, you’ve found ‘the one’, have moved in together and are blissfully loved up in your new nest.

And then it starts…

The piles of clothes on the floor and the paperwork that sits gathering dust are, at first, just minor irritations. You bite your lip as the dishwasher hasn’t been emptied two days after the ‘cycle finished’ light started flashing. His inability to make it further than the lounge with the hoover becomes a standing – if annoying – joke between the pair of you.

And so you have a choice: either nag him to do his share or simply do it yourself. But why do we think that these are our only options? Why, in the 21st century, do we still feel it’s our job to manage the home when we also have our own career?

Despite 40 years of feminism the woman is still very much the ‘domestic organiser’, relied upon to manage housework, file vital papers, remember everyone’s birthdays, source tradespeople and ensure the boiler gets its annual service. Add children into the mix, and that list suddenly includes booking immunisations, making sure there are enough clean nappies and clothes, and becoming an expert in everything from weaning and potty training to sewing outfits for school plays and planning the perfect birthday party each year.

As life progresses – from sharing a house with friends to living with a partner to having a family – a woman will find herself on a well-worn path where she takes on more and more domestic chores. In fact, single girls will see the number of hours they spend on housework increase by 50% when they become part of a couple – and that’s before a baby comes along.

In March this year the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) revealed that just one in ten married men do the same amount of housework as their wives. Moreover, 87% of married women do seven or more hours a week – the equivalent of an entire working day – while 30% do between seven and 12 hours and almost one half do 13 hours or more.

And things won’t be changing any time soon. A recent study by Oxford University confirmed that, if current trends continue, women will have to wait until 2050 before men are doing an equal share of household chores and childcare.

It’s therefore clear that the more serious a relationship gets, the more women find themselves enmeshed in the domestic arena, bound by convention, stereotypes and male behaviour. After all, if he’s not going to clean the toilet, who is?

While the IPPR argues that the route towards gender equality requires men to voluntarily do more of their fair share, the truth is that here’s where we hit the first hurdle.

Gather a group of friends and colleagues together and it won’t be long before one exasperated woman will share an anecdote about the pile of ironing that only she seems able to see. For men to ‘voluntarily’ do their share they need to be able to recognise what needs doing in the first place – and for most men household chores seem to be a definite blind spot.

So what do women do?

We nag.

Well… we don’t nag, actually; we give direction as to what needs doing, when and how. Men just ‘hear’ nagging. Is it any wonder then that domestic chores remain one of the biggest causes of marital arguments? And, faced with the prospect of either a fight or the stroppy teenager routine of ‘Do I have to?’, who hasn’t taken the ‘easy’ route and simply done the job themselves?

Then there is the frightening number of bright, educated and talented women who, while prepared to fight for equal rights in the workplace, are seemingly unable to do the same in their own home. These are the women who marvel at the fact that someone else’s husband has cooked a meal or vacuumed the carpet, and who don’t feel that they could ask theirs to do the same.

Where does it all start?

Growing up watching Mum take on the lion’s share of the housework and being exposed to endless cleaning product ads which feature only an efficient woman (or, at best, a clueless man who needs a woman to show him ‘how it’s really done’) means that the female population is actively conditioned from an early age to accept responsibility for removing mess and dirt from the home. At the same time, men are conditioned to see women as the expert in this area.

No wonder so many men not only think that women are genetically more adept at cleaning, but that they also enjoy the process! It also explains why some men expect a pat on the back for their efforts when they do ‘help’, as they feel they’ve done part of a woman’s job for her.

But the social barriers to men’s full participation in household tasks aren’t the only obstacle: the gender pay gap also determines the division of labour.

From getting paid less than men for the same job to the challenges of juggling family life and career there’s no doubt that the female pay packet is often much smaller than her partner’s. As a result, any perceived ‘shortfall’ in income on the woman’s side is ‘made up’ in the unpaid work – in the shape of household chores and childcare – that she does at home.

The root cause remains our inability to measure work in terms of anything other than its economic worth. Who doesn’t know a mother – or father! – who hasn’t admitted that their 9-to-5 job is less stressful, less demanding and less frustrating than looking after a small child over the same time period? Despite this, because one job earns a salary and one doesn’t, the former is valued more.

To add insult to injury, not only does paid employment result in a regular salary slip, it also comes with ongoing recognition in the form of praise, performance reviews and promotions. In contrast, housework remains a thankless task that, for the most part, goes unrecognised and unrewarded. No wonder women feel the need to point out what they’ve done in order to get some form of acknowledgement. Recognition is even more important when the task is endless, dull, repetitive and boring – choosing between cleaning the oven and cleaning the bath is not remotely comparable to the varied challenges and opportunities to learn that working outside the home brings.

Sadly, the cycle is self-perpetuating. A reduced income means that women struggle to ‘buy’ equality on the home front and many children still grow up seeing Mum take on the bulk of household tasks while Dad has the ‘real’ job that pays the bills. As a result, children are conditioned from day one to accept and absorb traditional gender roles.

So where does that leave us? For those that can afford it, there is the fallback plan of hiring a cleaner, but that in itself is fraught with difficulties. How many people feel they need to clean and tidy before the cleaner arrives so they don’t judge their employer by the state of her house?

The truth is, for most people, there is no overnight fix. Worse still, by continuing to perpetuate the superwoman myth we create an expectation amongst our sons: if their mother can do the housework, be primary carer and fit in her day job, why should their wife be any different?

Some will say that the roles are all too embedded, that true equality can never be achieved. But in some parts of the world, it’s already well on the way. In Nordic countries, for example, there is an emphasis on shared earning and parenting ensuring that women’s opportunities outside the home aren’t hampered by a lack of help within it and enabling men to spend more time with their children.

Here lies the answer. New ways of working supported by new legislation would mean that the next generation grows up seeing Mum and Dad fully share the roles of homemaker, breadwinner and caregiver and teach them that, regardless of gender, chiefs of industry still need to scrub the bath when they get home…

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