THE CHORES

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.

13 thoughts on “THE CHORES”

  • You just reminded me of my mother. When my siblings and I were young, she assigned chores to us all. We dusted, we swept, we ironed things no one would normally consider ironing, we washed windows. You name it we spawn did it. As soon as we left home, guess what? No dusting, no ironing, no fussing over a few cobwebs in corners. As long as there was slave labor available, the house had to be spotless. Once she had to do that work herself, standards slid dramatically. Her choice when it came to housework had been to devise as much as possible for the kids to do just to keep us busy.

    As a child care technique I suppose there might be worse ones. All that housework kept us home and out of trouble, more or less. How much was actually necessary? Who knows. Like you said, no two people have the same standards.

  • “(who wears shoes indoors all the time?)”

    I do. Socks and sandals. 365 days a year. Even in the midwest during winter.

    “So I sweep every day, and hand-wash the hard floors probably every 3-4 days.”

    Get yourself a roomba. They are wonderful.

  • Women will (typically) be judged more harshly by people who see a shared living space, and in many ways more dependent on the judgments of others for survival, so making more housework may be part of a larger issue regarding women's roles and worth.

    But, yeah, I get the methodological issue of measurement you bring up.

  • Island in the Sun says:

    I also wonder about geographic variation in what chores "must" be done, and whether this contributes to disparate average number of hours of housework done.
    I used to live in the US Midwest, and many of the behaviors described in this thread (e.g., washing dishes every few days; ironing everything) I also saw as on a continuum of normal household upkeep behaviors. Then, I moved to the tropics, where a much higher level of housework is necessary.
    Dirty dishes in the sink for more than an hour? That's how you get ants, which are very hard to eradicate once they get established. Ironing your sheets? Of course, that's how you eliminate mold and bedbug eggs. So regularly washing dishes and ironing everything isn't a choice in the same way as it is for Midwestern Americans.
    Insofar as different geographic regions differ in cultural expectations about gendered housework, I would speculate that this contributes to women on average spending more hours on housework than men. It may not be just that Northerners are more egalitarian with respect to housework, but also that Northerners have less housework to do.

  • The absolute measure of housework isn't as important or interesting as the consistency of the measure within a time series. It's like measuring the hours spent "watching" television or "on" social media. Is the subject actually watching the screen? Are they actually paying attention to the narrative or remarks? Shouldn't time be multiplied by level of involvement or level of attention? Getting that metric precisely right is probably impossible, but getting a consistent metric can give a useful trend.

  • You two should get a dog.
    You'll both dramatically increase the amount of discretionary "care" time you spend. [And I hope it's on different aspects…like one likes to train, the other likes to walk.]
    It'll provide justification for frequent sweeping.
    It'll provide justification for (more) frequent laundry.

    Dog.

  • I forget where, but other books have raised the question, Why is it that the amount of time spent on housework has remained largely constant, despite the steady influx of labor saving devices?

    I’ve lived with a dishwasher and without, and honestly the biggest draw I found is that with a dishwasher I’m astronomically less likely to break dishes.

  • Ah…this seems to tacitly imply that age-old excuse that men are naturally more likely to "not see the mess" than women. As long as we're quibbling in a fashion that hints around at minimizing the housework gap, or at least participating in an ego-soothing exercise for men, are we attempting to quantify housework by how long each task takes to perform (as in, 3 hours of housework, etc.), or are we talking about the number of individual chores performed? Of course we can say that the size of the workload depends on how much of a half-assed job each person is willing to do, but that still doesn't account for the fact that that women do more housework in a heterosexual relationship/male-female living arrangement, unless the underlying assumption is that men "just don't see the mess" and women require a more sanitary environment. That's ridiculous on its face, unless you're predisposed to sexist arguments of genetics informing behavior (which just so happens to justify men getting out of doing housework when there's a woman around…how convenient).

    None of that holds up in same-sex living arrangements. Could it be that, perhaps, men "don't see the mess"…as their responsibility to clean up, because they've only been conditioned to believe that from birth?

    In other words, nice try. "I'm totally not trying to say that women don't do more housework than men, but when you look at it in a way that makes me look like less of an asshole by association, women don't REALLY do more housework than men, amiright??"

  • Woman weighing in here. I have the more stressful (and higher paying) job, so hubs does more of the housework. He handles dishes and laundry and a decent amount of weekly cleaning. He also gets the toilets, but I do anything that's low to the ground because I'm short, meaning tubs and any hand scrubbing on the floor (which is MORE than fair).
    That said, it took a couple of years for us to align on what it meant to be clean, what the standard was for cleaning and how often. Also, ther
    e's a reason I have a "better" job–he's more likely to be lazy and skip a chore than I am, which has translated into our efforts with our careers. But since he already does so much housework, I'm inclined to let him skip from time to time since hey, waiting one or two days means I don't have to do it (and am lazy in my own way? I guess?).
    I do agree, without knowing more it's hard to say how well the data was quantified and measured for the study. I also agree that, in general, I care a lot more about how clean the house is and how well it's cleaned than he does. If we didn't have the arrangement we have (and I am so lucky to have a truly amazing spouse in that regard) I could easily see me doing about that amount of the chores compared to him. I

  • also, you doing laundry once a month and her doing it much more often (as long the washer isn't like near empty, and load size is adjustable) is still the same amount of work. but for we woman, hauling insanely heavy laundry loads up and down stairs IS a lot of work.

    same with dishes. i'd argue that your way of doing them every so often is MORE work than doing them daily; although for water savings, a full dishwasher is best and a sinkful of suds for a sinkful of dishes is better than one at a time with water running.

    i'm a feminist, my husband is a feminist,, yet while he loves clean sheets and clean floors, i have yet to see him change the bed or sweep ONCE. we were both raised by internalized-sexist mothers.

    my husband can look past the mess, any mess except broken glass or a low oil light, because from birth his mom considered it her duty to clean up after him and his dad. OTOH, any mess at home or work gives me an uneasy feeling and i can't get other work done before putting things back in order, because i got my ass whipped if i didn't clean up after my older brothers, make dinner, and take care of the younger ones. so, hmmm. anecdata, i know, but.

  • There is also a difference in the kind of mess a couple sees, and there is also a difference in clean-up detection. In one of our friend circles, a discussion went around that the husband left out the vacuum cleaner, which annoyed his wife, mostly because he did it to show that he did a chore. I don't know their general habits but I could see his point. If a chore isn't done in front of the partner, and it's not a completely obvious one like laundry and dishes, then there's a good chance it won't be acknowledged–which is fine if you don't need that head pat, but not fine if you have an SO that keeps an unofficial mental tally for later.

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