Philosophers Propose a New Theory to Explain Why Men Don’t Share in Housework
Men and women perceive their domestic environment differently — which could drive the inequitable distribution of labor.
The invisible labor of women, where they bear most of the burden of housework and childcare, is well-established. It often goes unrecognized, especially by men living under the same roof. Over time, social norms that perpetuate gender roles have been the foremost contender to explain why men in heterosexual relationships pretend that children’s school lunches magically make themselves or the dust coating surfaces disappears of its own accord. Now, philosophers have proposed a new theory to understand this inequitable distribution of household labor — based on how men and women perceive their domestic environment.
According to the latest theory, “men and women are trained by society to see different possibilities for action in the same domestic environment.” This is based on what is known as the “affordance theory,” which says that our experiences of objects and situations have actions implicitly attached. For instance, a woman who looks at a surface strewn with crumbs might view it as an implied action – “to be wiped.” Men, on the other hand, may only see the object as is – in this case, a crumb-covered tabletop. The paper further notes that to ensure labor is divided more equally between partners, there need to be efforts not just at an individual level, but also in the form of policy interventions that address the root causes of such gendered perceptions.
The authors, writing in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, say social norms lie at the root of such a gender-divide in perception. “Some skills are explicitly gendered, such [as] cleaning or grooming, and girls are expected to do more domestic chores than boys,” McClelland said. Observing social cues over time trains women to perceive their environment as one that spurs action. However, their “sensitivity” to domestic tasks should not be equated with a “natural affinity for housework,” the authors emphasized.
Similarly, the theory does not absolve men of their responsibilities at home. While men’s perception of domestic tasks makes them less likely to act on them, this does not mean they cannot perform the task. “Lack of sensitivity to domestic task affordances is not a visual impairment; it’s not like, say, colour blindness… In the absence of affordance perception, you can still reason your way to what is to be done,” McClelland told The Guardian.
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There were two questions of concern which their theory aimed to answer. The first has to do with the issue of “disparity,” and asks, “Why do women continue to shoulder a disproportionate amount of housework and childcare despite economic and cultural gains?” The second looks at the problem of “invisibility” to understand why many men believe domestic work is equally distributed, despite reports suggesting otherwise.
“Gendered affordance perception” might hold the answer to both. “We suggest that disparities in domestic and caring labour come about not just as a result of deeply held beliefs, desires and feelings but also as a result of gendered differences at the level of perception: that two partners in the same domestic environment can experience very different affordance landscapes,” Dr. Tom McClelland of Cambridge University, who is also the paper’s co-author, told The Guardian.
Individuals perceive affordances, or the “possibility for action,” in surrounding objects and environments in starkly different ways. For example, when a woman enters the kitchen, she is more likely to notice the chores hidden behind mundane objects – the floor needs to be swept, the dishes must be washed and the fridge is to be stocked. However, men may not perceive the affordance or feel the same “tug” to act on it. The philosophers write that “where both partners perceive it, the domestic task affordance tends to more strongly solicit action for women than for men.”
Co-author and professor Pauline Sliwa explained that neuroscience research has revealed how affordance perception can trigger neural processes, ranging from a “slight urge to overwhelming compulsion” that prepares one for physical action. “Affordances pull on your attention… Tasks may irritate the perceiver until done, or distract them from other plans. If resisted, it can create a felt tension… This puts women in a catch-22 situation: either inequality of labour or inequality of cognitive load,” Sliwa said.
Over time, philosophers say these small differences can add up to create a widening gap in workload. Differences in affordance perception between men and women may also explain why most men overestimate their contribution to domestic work. Here, the pandemic is a key example.
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The lockdown duly magnified the disproportionate burden of housework that women shouldered. This invisible labor was propelled into the limelight primarily by reports celebrating the percentage of men who picked up a certain share of domestic chores during the lockdown. However, The New York Times reported the results of a survey that revealed while men were doing more, the pandemic had not ushered in an equitable division of chores, as was expected. 70% of women said they were fully or mostly responsible for housework, while 66% said the same for childcare.
“Many point to the performance of traditional gender roles, along with various economic factors such as women taking flexible work for childcare reasons… Yet the fact that stark inequalities in domestic tasks persisted during the pandemic, when most couples were trapped inside, and that many men continued to be oblivious of this imbalance, means this is not the full story,” said McClelland.
At the individual level, conscious effort to resist gendered norms and habit cultivation can change how people perceive the world. Men, for instance, can decide to sweep for crumbs every time they wait for the kettle to boil, the philosophers suggested. “Not only would this help them to do the tasks they don’t see, it would gradually retrain their perception so they start to see the affordance in the future,” McClelland explained.
Changing social norms, however, requires societal-level interventions too. Shared parental leave, for example, can aid fathers in becoming more sensitive to the care their children require, in turn, reshaping their perception of these affordances which could allow them to contribute to care-work long-term. Policies and collective effort, then, become important means of tackling gendered inequalities in the distribution of labor.
While the paper focused on the division of domestic work in terms of bodily actions, it could also be applied to understand gendered sensitivity to affordances for mental actions like remembering a scheduled event. Further, the unequal distribution of labor is not restricted to the domestic environment, but extends far beyond into other spheres, such as the workplace too. The new theory, thus, sheds light on several future lines of inquiry as well.
Ananya Singh is a Senior Staff Writer at TheSwaddle. She has previously worked as a journalist, researcher and copy editor. Her work explores the intersection of environment, gender and health, with a focus on social and climate justice.