The Battle of the Sexes Continues: Does It All Come Down to The Dishes?

The Battle of the Sexes Continues: Does It All Come Down to The Dishes?

Jennifer Hunter
Dec 18, 2013
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

There's something of a brawl rumbling around, gaining momentum on the interwebs these days. It's not a new fight, but it is a common one in homes everywhere, probably even yours.

Why, in 2013, do men and women still do such unequal shares of the housework?

Perhaps we can chalk this rehashing up to holiday stress as everyone scrambles to tidy up before houseguests descend, or maybe it's just one of those things destined to bubble up from time to time as frustration — and grime — build.

We've certainly discussed this issue many times here at Apartment Therapy. Contributor AnnaMaria stirred up plenty of controversy with her investigation of the monetary value of her housework in What Is Your Housework Worth. I wrote about my own domestic challenges in The Messy Myth. It's interesting to note that we both, two women, confessed to shouldering a majority of the cleaning in our respective homes, and we were both fairly accepting of the situation.

Perhaps it's as simple as different standards of cleanliness. Stephen Marche recently made The Case for Filth in the New York Times. He argues that it may be a problem of definition. Just as, "there exists no agreed-upon definition of 'what has to be done' in a household," there also aren't clear parameters for what exactly constitutes housework. Does grocery shopping count as much as sweeping the floor? "What about planning summer vacations?" he asks.

Not to mention the tendency to overestimate the actual tasks we accomplish. One British study, through questionnaires and self-reporting, concluded that there's a huge gulf between the perception of effort one imagines he exerts and the actual results produced. Marche's solution? Care less. Men may not be fighting filth much more than they did in the 60's, but women have grown more lax about household tasks as well, making the workload (a little) more equal. Apparently, soon, "we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor." Oh goody.

Jonathan Chait agrees in a New York Magazine article entitled, A Really Easy Answer to the Feminist Housework Problem. He points out that, while men are increasingly embracing many areas which previously fell to women such as childcare and cooking, housework is pure drudgery and that's why men haven't made strides to do more of it. His solution to this terrible "feminist" problem? Women should simply adopt the more relaxed cleanliness standards of men. Or as he puts it, "Feminists want women to work like men do, right? Why not try living like men, too? Put down the duster. It’ll be okay."

Wait, what? As much as I love (and usually agree with) Jonathan Chait, I simply can't acquiesce to a world where "feminists" (to use a, frankly, outdated term) should be the only ones to adjust their ideas of what constitutes a comfortable, shared home.

Modern Parenthood infographic shows lots of change, but not everywhere
(Image credit: Pew Research)

So what about the women who work full-time and bring home just as much bacon as their men (or maybe more)? Can they expect a break on the homefront? Don't bet on it. In the aptly named Atlantic article, Yes, Men Should Do More Housework, Derrek Thompson reports that, statistically, those overachieving women are not only earning more money and doing more chores around the house; they're also more likely to report unhappiness and get divorced.

Emir Kamenica, co-author of Gender Identity and Relative Income within Households, says it may very well be due to "compensatory behavior," better known as guilt-cleaning. As Thompson puts it, "The wife does more of the cooking and cleaning to make the husband feel okay that he's earning less." Putting aside for one minute the disturbing social mores that compel women to apologize for earning more money than their partners, the fact remains that disagreements over the shared responsibility of a household are often far more complicated and layered than can be solved by women simply learning to live with a dirty kitchen floor.

Jessica Grose agrees with me. In her New Republic article, she points out that women may, in fact, clean, not only out of the need to have a cleaner environment, but also to avoid outside judgment for keeping a dirty house. Whether or not their guests will actually notice the mess, women somehow feel an ingrained sense of personal responsibility for creating a tidy home. But why? Such strides have been made to share responsibility in the many areas traditionally thought of as "women's work," so why is this one statistic so stubbornly sticking to its anti-housework stance? As Grose says, "Disaggregating all the factors that go into making women more inclined to clean than men is a headachy, complex, chicken-egg, nature-nurture project."

I certainly don't know the answer, but I do know that I'll be keeping my "high" cleanliness standards, and I'll probably keep up my fair share of grumbling as well. As long as I'm sharing a household, I'll continue to believe that "sharing" means sharing scrubbing the toilet as well.

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