Are women better at housework or are they just more attuned to mess?

Are men naturally messier when it comes to housework? Or can intolerance of mess be learned? Philosopher Tom McClelland talks about his research into the tangled housework and gender question.

dads, housework


Do men perceive messiness differently from women and do women simply have a lower mess tolerance?

Tom McClelland is a philosopher who has studied the issue, but he says his findings don’t let men off the hook.

Tom, who is based at the University of Cambridge where he will be speaking about his research at the Cambridge Festival next month, says he and his colleague Professor Paulina Sliwa found that gender inequality in domestic labour is best explained in terms of differences in how men and women are trained to see the domestic environment.

He says: “The theory behind our proposal is that we see our environment in terms of what we can do in it. For instance, you see stairs as climbable, apples as edible and chairs as sit-on-able. These action-related features of the environment are known as ‘affordances’ and there’s a lot of work in psychology and philosophy exploring how we perceive affordances. The affordances we perceive reflect our upbringing and life-experiences, so two people in the very same environment might see very different affordances. Applying this framework to housework, we can describe the domestic environment in terms of affordances for domestic tasks. So the crumbs on the surface afford wiping, the messy carpet affords hoovering and the overflowing bin affords taking out.”

They argue that there are gender differences in the perception of these domestic affordances, with women being more likely to perceive the crumbs as affording wiping, for example, than men are.

Tom adds: “Since our behaviour is guided by our perception of affordances, this helps explain why women often end up doing more housework. This hypothesis also helps explain another interesting pattern: the widespread invisibility of women’s labour. Various studies, such as this NY Times survey, suggest that men tend to underestimate how much domestic labour their female partners do. We offer a simple explanation for this. Men are less likely to see the crumbs as affording wiping in the first place and so less likely to notice that the job’s been done by their partner.”

Learned behaviour

But, Tom argues, that doesn’t mean men are innately less good at housework than women. It’s simply that men and women are trained to see the domestic environment differently. “Our view is very much that these inequalities can be fixed,” says Tom.

That means retraining our perception. He states: “You’ve got to go through a phase of deliberately looking for what needs doing then, with time, you’ll learn to just see those jobs automatically. You can try setting up particular times for doing this. For example, you could adopt the rule that while the kettle’s boiling you look around the kitchen for anything that needs cleaning or tidying. Then over time you’ll learn to just see those jobs without thinking.”

Women may in fact face the harder job, says Tom, of not seeing domestic affordances. He states: “Being in the habit of doing a particular job tunes you in to when that job needs doing. So one way of tuning out of a job is to not do it any more! Obviously that would require coordinating with your partner so that they take responsibility for the job instead. But if all goes well that job will gradually stop calling out to you to be done.”

*Seeing the mess: gender, housework and perception takes place on 21st March at the Cambridge Festival.


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