It’s time for women to quit housework (again)

By Sarah Green Carmichael

In the US, the average woman spends so much more time on chores than the average man that to equalise the load, women would have to quit the housework entirely now for the remainder of the year.

And that represents progress: the gender gap in chores narrowed a bit from last year, when women would have had to quit on August 29, a day I dubbed “Equal Housework Day”.

Since 2012, men have added about 12 minutes a day of household labour, extending a gradual long-term rise. To my surprise, women haven’t dialled back, but have added about 5 minutes each day. If men are doing more, why aren’t women doing less?

Men have added about 12 minutes a day of household labour since 2012, but women haven’t dialled back.
Men have added about 12 minutes a day of household labour since 2012, but women haven’t dialled back.Credit: Shutterstock

That question isn’t easily answered, in part because the amount of time people spend on housework varies widely according to whether they are rich or poor, working or retired, parents or childless. But in every demographic group, women do more housework than men.

Even single women living alone do more housework than single men, notes Liana Sayer, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. The disparity is amplified in opposite-sex couples. And when women do less, it’s generally not because men have taken on more. It’s because of another woman, such as a hired house cleaner.

First, just to get this out of the way: Whenever I write about this, men email me to explain that the data must omit the stuff they do: paying bills, mowing the lawn, house repairs, and so on. But this objection doesn’t hold water. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics data takes such “typically male” tasks into account. Plus, I’ve excluded the enormous amount of time women spend on unpaid caregiving for children and other family members.

When women do less, it’s generally not because men have taken on more. It’s because of another woman, such as a hired house cleaner.

What we’re left with is an apples-to-apples comparison of all the daily stuff of life: cooking, cleaning, laundry, car maintenance, gutter-clearing and the rest of it. Even if men do more of certain tasks, women do much more overall. And the justifications often trotted out — men don’t notice the mess, women are better at multitasking — have been proven wrong again and again.

But there is one common explanation that seems to be right: Women, on average, feel impelled to maintain higher standards of cleanliness. We’ve been taught that being a good wife and mother — a good woman — requires us to be clean. To do household tasks the “right” way. Perhaps that’s one reason why, even as US men have slowly stepped up their game, women have not stepped back.


“Our sense of who we are is so bound up in notions of what society deems to be the right kind of femininity,” says Allison Daminger, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “It becomes part of our sense of self.”

A woman living alone might spend more time cleaning because we’re taught to find it gratifying. Then when a male partner moves in, she’s often dismayed by and resentful of his lower standards. As I was mulling this column, three different women spontaneously and energetically complained to me that their male partners — the horror! — don’t fold the laundry immediately upon hearing the dryer complete its cycle. Others mentioned boyfriends whose idea of cleaning the kitchen doesn’t include wiping counters or husbands who have never dusted a baseboard.

There’s no innate reason for women to associate household tasks with inner worth, experts say. But the usual explanation — that if a house is messy, it’s the woman who will be judged for it — has always left me a bit unsatisfied. To be clear, research does support that. But if it’s only the judgement of others we fear, then shouldn’t the chore wars have taken a break in 2020, when COVID fears kept visitors away? Instead, conflict only seemed to intensify as couples spent more time at home.

Perhaps a more complete explanation is that women have internalised society’s judgements — after all, isn’t that what socialisation is? — so that messes bother us even when no one is looking. When I see scattered crumbs, it’s as if some sort of internal referee blows a whistle; I simply feel compelled to wipe them up.

Eve Rodsky, author of Fair Play, says that women she’s interviewed consistently tell her they feel they only have three socially sanctioned roles: employee, wife and mother. Household tasks are such an integral part of the last two that they can easily fill any waking hours that aren’t filled by paid work. It becomes almost impossible to make time for anything else — passion projects, hobbies, friendships, even moments of glorious idleness.

Men are socialised differently. They, of course, could (and I’d argue, should) do more around the house, but they haven’t been taught to see household chores in moral terms; masculine worth is measured differently, according to salary, stoicism or physical strength. And they feel more entitled to their own time, Rodsky says. They protect it — and women help them do so. When we do, “we are complicit in our own oppression,” she says.

That’s one of the reasons that any attempt to fix the imbalance requires more than clearer communication and a better system. It requires a third element: boundaries. That means tolerating the conflict that renegotiating the household load inevitably entails. And it means learning to distance ourselves from the internal referee shouting “Flag on the field!” at the sink full of dishes.

How do we do that? By “understanding that my time is not worthless,” says Rodsky, “even though we’ve been conditioned since birth to believe it is.”

It’s worth a try. After all, we’ve already done our share.


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