Housework or wifework?

Housework or wifework?
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
9 October 2014

Sung over a throbbing guitar riff, the lyrics to one of my favourite punk songs begins:

Same old boring Sunday morning,

Old man’s out washing the car,

Mum’s in the kitchen cooking Sunday dinner…

Released in 1979 ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’ by The Members paints a picture of a traditional marriage with a traditional gender-based division of domestic labour. But things have changed since then, haven’t they?

Well, not really, no. Spurred on by the second-wave Feminism of the 1970s there has been some progressive change in terms of gender roles in the home but, as a new ComRes poll shows, women continue to do the majority of housework. Commissioned by BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, the survey found that, on average, women in the UK spend 11.5 hours doing housework, while men do just six hours

This depressing finding confirms recent studies conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Institute for Public Policy Research and the 2014 Global Trends Survey. The latter found the imbalance in UK relationships broadly reflects the international average, with seven in ten women across 20 countries reporting they were mostly responsible for the cooking, food shopping and household cleaning.

Most of the unpleasant and routine housework invariably ‘belongs’ to women. For example, the Woman’s Hour poll found 83 per cent of women said they were responsible for cleaning the toilet. In contrast, the forms of domestic labour for which men traditionally take responsibility, such as home maintenance and gardening, can often be carried out at will and can be said, in the words of one author, to ‘approximate a state of leisure‘. Generally when men do help with housework it is exactly that – help, rarely obligatory or routine.

It is not surprising, then, to discover that, on average, when men move in with a female partner their participation in housework falls. And, yes, you’ve guessed it – when a single woman moves in with a male partner her participation in housework increases. A common response is to argue this continued imbalance in the home is down to men’s greater contribution as the main breadwinner. Bypassing the slavish assumptions of this argument, it is rather out of date, with 41% of women now earning more than their other half. Furthermore, according to the 2013 European Social Survey British women who work over 30 hours a week still do two-thirds of the housework.

Why does this unequal status quo continue? Sociologist Susan Meushart, author of Wifework: What Marriage Means For Women, believes this can partly be explained by the concept of ‘pseudomutuality’ – ‘a state of affairs in which both parties profess egalitarian ideals, and pretend that they are sharing equally, while still conducting their married lives according to more or less rigid gender-typed roles.’ Conveniently, men seem to be particularly afflicted by this, with Adam Ludlow of ComRes noting that men often overestimate the amount of housework they do.

We also have to face up to the fact that men on the whole (an important qualification) have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. A traditional heterosexual relationship is better for him. Conversely, a women’s experience of coupledom will feel better the further the relationship retreats from this traditional ‘ideal’. To question the status quo is to risk awkward arguments. And even if a woman raises the issue men can employ various combinations of avoidance, denial, intimidation and, in some households, even violence.

So what is to be done? As with all social problems, the key is Government policy. A 2011 Oxford University study found the Nordic countries that encouraged women to enter the workforce by providing good maternity and paternity leave and public childcare services had greater equality in sharing housework. A reduction of the standard working week to 30 hours, as advocated by the New Economics Foundation, would also help by giving both partners more non-work time.

There are actions individuals can take too. As the person who generally performs the majority of childcare duties, women can be instigators of social change. In her book Housewife – 40 years old this year – the feminist author Ann Oakley argues women can teach their daughters how not to be housewives, and their sons how to do housework. We need to reject traditional gender roles and stop defining some work as ‘women’s work’ and some work as ‘men’s work.’ However, as the main problem is the general failure of men to do enough housework, it’s the responsibility of men to make the biggest leap forward to enact the change that is needed. A question for the men out there: how often do you get down on your hands and knees and scrub the toilet clean?

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He Tweets @IanJSinclair.

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