Invisible Women is, if not the best book of 2019, at least tied for that honor with How to Hide an Empire. Briefly, it covers many ways that excluding women from data and research (e.g., all crash test dummies used by the NHTSA are male bodies, when the mass, distribution of mass, muscle strength, and spinal physics of women are different) has created a lot of real-world problems. To finish the same example, women are far more likely to be injured in a side-impact crash compared to men in the same accident.
One of the book’s most frequently cited statistics raised some interesting ideas for me: that women do 75% of all “care” work – housekeeping, parenting, elder care, cooking, etc. Now, we could drive a bus through the methodological holes in the idea of care work (Is this self-reported? How is that validated? In what society? Now or in the past? But what about XYZ that shows men do more housework than ever?) but this is a good example of a data point where getting hung up on the precision of the figure completely misses the point.
Do women do exactly 75% of housework, and not 74%? I mean, that’s not actually important. There’s no question that, in a two-adult heterosexual household, women are doing more of this work. Whether it’s 55-45, 66-33, 75-25, or 90-10 is of considerably less interest.
One reason I think the exact figure doesn’t matter is that there’s a tremendous range of experience and domestic arrangements people have. You might be saying “My wife and I are 50-50!” right now, and maybe that’s true. In a large sample those kinds of individual differences will average out. The more interesting thing I kept coming back to as this statistic was mentioned is: how much Housework is there?
I’d be willing to bet that, looking more closely at research on the gender breakdown of domestic work there is not only a disparity between how much housework men and women do, but how much housework they think there is.
Take a hypothetical parent who tells their kid, “When you’re done with your math homework, let’s go over it together.” Another parent, the helicopter control-freak type, says “Sit down and we are doing your math homework. OK number one. No, don’t do it that way. No not like that. Here, let me show you.” The first parent spends 10 minutes and the second spends an hour. But here’s the thing: That person spent an hour because they wanted to do it that way, not because they “had to.”
Let me give you a binary example now that Question Cathy and I live together. Prior to this, I spent 10 years living alone, doing 100% of all my housework by definition. So I’m certainly not averse to housework, nor do I ever expect any of it to be done for me.
But consider laundry. Due to the way my previous career worked out, I found myself in the habit of wearing nearly every single item of clothing I own and creating an enormous, almost mountainous pile of dirty laundry that I would then take to a laundromat and do all in one big Laundry Session. I’m talking about saving up 3, sometimes 4 weeks of laundry and then cleaning everything I own in one burst.
QC prefers to do laundry every day, almost. Both of us clean our clothes, but if comparing our “systems” it is clear that hers takes vastly more human-hours of labor. I’d argue that it isn’t entirely necessary to do laundry so often – it’s a choice. What happens, of course, is that we are slowly drifting together. I am doing laundry more often, she is doing it a little less often, and we will meet at some point.
Conversely, QC prefers to do one thorough house-cleaning per week. I’m on board with that except for one thing: the floors. I *hate* dirty floors, even just a little bit dirty. The feeling of crumbs or whatever on the bottom of my feet (who wears shoes indoors all the time?) is super unpleasant. So I sweep every day, and hand-wash the hard floors probably every 3-4 days. Do I “have to” do that? I’d argue no. It’s a preference. I choose to do it, so it would be silly for me to argue “I slave over a mop for you!”
My point is simple: treating “the housework” as a defined, objective amount of labor is a mistake. All available data shows that in countries like the US, the amount of labor required at home has been steadily decreasing thanks to labor-saving devices for over a century (although some of that gain has been eaten away by increased standards of how clean things are expected to be). Whatever the amount of work is, the burden falls unequally on women. Don’t walk away from this with an impression that I doubt that for a second. I’m simply curious, in the process of trying to figure out how much of the burden falls on men versus women, the idea of “the housework” is quantified.
In my adult experience, there is a certain baseline level of work that has to be done. Beyond that, it is what you decide it should be. I haven’t had a dishwasher for a decade, and the amount of labor that created was a matter of…well, how much I was willing to live with some piled-up dishes. Had I done every dirty dish every single day, I would have had X hours per week dedicated to dishes. Instead I did like, X/2 or X/3. It was a choice, with benefits and consequences.
It is useful, I think, for people to keep this in mind. The amount of labor that parenting or housekeeping requires is always a matter, to some degree, of what you make it. “Oh, I have to drop my kids off at school and then wait in the long line to pick them up!” Really? Or do you choose to do that because you won’t let them ride the school bus? Or because you tell them it’s “too dangerous” to walk six blocks to school? Either way is fine! It’s your choice! But recognize that you’re making a choice. Some things are not optional; you have to feed your child and do laundry. But how much time you spend on those activities is…flexible. It is not in any way fixed.
What does all this mean? Nothing, really. It was just a thing that came to mind when the topic was being covered. Data is always a matter of how you quantify and conceptualize your variables, and this is an especially clear example of how hard it is to measure some nebulous concepts. If you doubt me that “How much housework needs to be done?” is subjective, go ask your kids how clean they think their rooms need to be.