Doing your share at home? That could be a matter of perception
A friend took her kids to their Sunday morning swimming lessons recently while her husband stayed home to make a start on the housework. She got home an hour later to find her husband sorting laundry. “Wait till you see the bathroom!” he told her, clearly proud of his work.
She got on with first things first, hanging out wet swimmers, making lunch and doing a number of miscellaneous tasks that need doing. A while later he asked again, has she seen the bathroom? By the time she made it upstairs and into the (yes, very clean) bathroom he had mentioned it three times. “Can you imagine if I made such a fuss every time I cleaned a room?” she asked me.
Even in the face of apparent domestic equality there are some glaring gaps in the way our contributions are perceived.Credit:iStock
This is a fairly common scenario among my heterosexual friends. Our male partners are very “hands on” and take pride in sharing the domestic load; we’re all very lucky to have them (according to our mothers). But even in the face of apparent domestic equality there are some glaring gaps in the way our contributions are perceived.
Recent research, from the UK’s Netmums, highlights the way that men and women perceive domestic labour. The majority of the 2000 participants agreed that men and women should do equal shares of childcare and housework, but only 20 per cent of women thought this actually happened compared with 40 per cent of men.
So what’s behind the perception gap? Speaking to The Independent, Annie O’Leary, Netmums editor-in-chief, explained that the discrepancy between the way men and women see the household split was likely to be the product of “centuries of parenting that has seen men take a backseat and women shoulder the burden”.
“Yes, dads today are doing more today but – clearly – it’s only a fraction of what’s required. So we all still have a long way to go,” she added.
It’s certainly a theory that rings true among my circle of friends. “My father-in-law doesn’t do anything at all, he doesn’t even make himself a cup of tea,” one friend told me. In contrast, her husband does most of the cooking and food shopping – not an equal share of the domestic labour – but in his view at least, his fair share.
For Lyn Craig, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at The University of Melbourne, the difference between what’s “fair” and what’s “equal” is crucial in understanding perception. “It is known that if women compare their partner's contribution with their father’s or with a friend’s partner who does little, they might think it more fair. [That] doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more likely to think it is equal,” she says.
Craig, who wasn’t at all surprised by the Netmums research, says that in her view the reason for the perception gap has more to do with visibility of the work. “[Men] don’t see all that is getting or needs to be done, [so it’s] not surprising if they are doing less,” she tells me.
“If women are doing more, by definition they will be doing more alone, without [their partners]. So he won’t know how much time she spends, for example, shopping for groceries.”
On top of this, Craig notes that men and women might have different views as to what constitutes domestic labour. For example, picking up and ferrying kids after school, which women may consider as part of their share of the parenting load and men may not credit as the burden that it is as, in a traditional male breadwinner household they will not be there to see it happen.
The survey also revealed some positive news, that 67 per cent of men and 68 per cent of women agreed that parenting responsibilities shouldn’t be split along gender lines.
So, in theory at least, the majority of us believe that mums and dads should take an equal share of parenting. Given the perception gap though, we might not all be on the same page when it comes to understanding what equal actually means. Perhaps we need to spell it out?
In her book Drop the Ball, Tiffany Dufu puts forward the idea of a domestic labour spreadsheet. Every single job is detailed in a bid to work out what needs to be done, what can be delegated or outsourced and what can be "dropped" altogether.
Could this system help us achieve a more equal balance too? I put the question to my friend, you know, the one with the sparkling clean bathroom. “It’s a great idea,” she tells me as she makes the mad dash from her office to afterschool care. “But who’s going to create the spread sheet in the first place?”
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