Coming Clean

A New Theory Claims Men And Women See Household Chores Very Differently

Researchers see a troubling twist in the problem of household equity.

Photo taken in Ukrainets, Ukraine
Oksana Shufrych / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

Despite decades of economic gains, changes in cultural perceptions of parenting, and dads who are more involved than ever before, women continue to shoulder the vast majority of housework and childcare. According to a Morning Consult poll for The New York Times, 70% of women said they were fully or mostly responsible for housework during the lockdown. Sixty-six percent say the same regarding child care.

That, of course, doesn’t include all the emotional labor that goes on behind the scenes — also vastly carried by women. The reasons for this are predictable: The cultural norms of previous generations persist even though the economic reality has shifted.

But the same poll found that only about 20% of men agree that their partners are fully or mostly responsible for housework and child care, with the same amount saying they're fully or mostly responsible for these tasks. Women see things much differently, with only about 2% agreeing with their male partners.

A new theory, published in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research looks at just how deep those norms cut — and how they may even fundamentally shift the way men and women see their homes.

After taking a look at data presented in the United Nation’s report on gender inequality in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, philosophy scholars Tom McClelland Ph.D. of Cambridge and Paulina Sliwa, Ph.D. of the University of Vienna found that men and women perceive different possibilities for action in the same household situations and conditions. In other words, one mess is another woman’s work.

For example, in this theory, a dad might see a messy playroom and think, “what a mess,” whereas a mother would be more likely to look at the same scene and see the implied action that needs to be taken: cleaning that mess up.

These different perception can be best interpreted through the psychological concept of “affordances” — the idea that people perceive things as inviting or “affording” particular actions.

“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,” Sliwa said in a release. “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.”

The philosophers consider a number of root causes as contributing to the gender-based split in affordance perception, but primary among them are social cues that kids receive from adults that encourage different responses based on gender.

“Social norms shape the affordances we perceive, so it would be surprising if gender norms do not do the same,” said McClelland. “Some skills are explicitly gendered, such as cleaning or grooming, and girls are expected to do more domestic chores than boys. This trains their ways of seeing the domestic environment, to see a counter as ‘to be wiped’.”

But while affordance theory might provide a reason household duties remain inequitably distributed between men and women, it doesn't give guys an out for perpetuating the pattern.

Social interventions like parental leave can encourage guys to develop mental associations for housework or for child care. And on an individual level, taking the initiative to be more involved with tasks that might usually get overlooked can undo old habits and gendered social conditioning.

“A man might adopt a resolution to sweep for crumbs every time he waits for the kettle to boil, for example,” says McClellan. “Not only would this help them to do the tasks they don't see, it would gradually retrain their perception so they start to see the affordance in the future.”

There’s no better time than the present to make a positive change. But before throwing on a Superman apron and trying to immediately rid your home of all things dastardly and the dirty, remember that one of the keys to sustained change is starting small and remaining consistent. So yeah. Sweeping those crumbs like a boss — on your own, without waiting to be asked, or seeking validation — really is a great place to start.