Tag Archives: Housework

Rebooting the stalled domestic revolution: Sally Howard interview

Rebooting the stalled domestic revolution: Sally Howard interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
15 May 2020

A London-based journalist specialising in gender, human rights and social trends, in March Sally Howard published The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does The Dishes.

A brilliant and inspiring book that attempts to “reboot the stalled domestic revolution”, Ian Sinclair asked Howard who does the dishes today, the impact of key life events and how coronavirus might change things.

Ian Sinclair: Many people may think there is broad equality in the UK in terms of housework today – certainly compared to the past. Can you summarise what the evidence tells us about domestic labour today?

Sally Howard: There’s a common misconception, fuelled by our onus on women’s gains in the public sphere (closing the Gender Pay Gap, for example, and equalising women’s representation in politics), that the feminist revolution on the home front has been fully achieved. And yes British males today contribute much more in terms of domestic effort than their 1970s counterparts: 18 hours a week compared to the one hour 20 minute contribution of 1971 man. However, British women still put in 60 percent more effort into these often mundane and repetitive tasks – 26 hours a week of cooking and cleaning, not to mention the invisible domestic administration we now refer to as ‘the mental load’. More troublingly, male efforts appear to have gone into reverse since the 1990s, with today’s male contributing an hour less to these tasks, each week, than his 1998 counterpart.

IS: I was particularly interested in your assertion that key life events tend to reinforce traditional gender roles. Can you explain more?

SH: Yes, there’s a phenomenon I call ‘the Parent Labour Trap’ – the fact that no matter how egalitarian a heterosexual couple are before the arrival of children, multiple factors conspire, once children are on the scene, to ‘discipline’ men and women into traditional breadwinning and housekeeping roles. First amongst these is the Gender Pay Gap, which often means it makes sense for a woman to put her career on the backburner to prioritise a higher income. Then there is the persistent stigma against male early-years primary caring that leads to our poor uptake of Shared Parental Leave (only two percent of eligible British males exercise their right to share leave). As I argue in the book, hands-on male primary parenting is the foundation of establishing egalitarian domestic arrangements in a family household (as seen in the Swedish model, where state-funded ‘use it or lose it’ daddy leave quotas lead to a much higher uptake of male parenting leave and a consequent fairer division of domestic labour). There’s also a surprising societal resistance to non-traditional domestic roles in childed families, with 72 percent of respondents to the 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey saying mothers of pre-school children should stay at home or only work part time. Add the fact that men with children tend to be promoted more readily, and it’s very easy for even the most progressive couples to slide into traditional domestic arrangements. My book finds that the arrival of a child increases the domestic labour load by around three hours a day – all of that wiping up and toy- tidying – and that two hours and 40 minutes of these extra labours fall to women.

IS: You note the politics of housework was a central concern of Second Wave feminism in the 1970s, but has fallen off the feminist agenda since then. Why do you think this happened?

SH: Yes domestic labour – in fabulous activist movements such as Wages for Housework – was a central plank of the Second Wave feminism. Partly this was down to the fact that these feminisms were an outgrowth of the socialist left. Wages for Housework, for example, was inspired in the workerist movements that took root in Italy in the 1960s. By the 1980s mainstream feminism had, following theorists such as Catharine MacKinnon, turned its attention to gains in women’s legal rights and in the public sphere. On one hand the dirty business of housework became unsexy, associated with the housewives working feminists no longer wanted to be. On the other a lazy compact was made, with some middle-class women passing domestic labour to other subordinate women, often along race and class lines. In the 1980s we saw a huge rise in low-paid childcare and per-hour domestic cleaning as many women paid other women to account for the fact men aren’t pitching in more. Of course this offloading of ‘women’s work’ along race and class lines was a breathtaking failure of feminist solidarity.

IS: I particularly enjoyed the chapter on utopian visions and alternative communities seeking to address the issue. Can you talk about your favourite?

SH: One of my favourites actually isn’t included in the book. The House of Nobodies in La Paz is a progressive all-gender feminist community where housework, undertaken by all members, is degendered, allocated by lottery and paid for out of a central pot. It’s a modern take on the ideas expounded by Wages for Housework: that attributing fiscal value to these tasks clearly designates them as ‘work’, rather than the natural-born gifts of woman’s love. I also love built community fixes to uneven division of labour, however, such as the utopian socialist society designed by self-taught architect Alice Constance Austin in the 1910s, in which ‘kitchenless homes’ were connected by a system of underground tunnels used for commuting, laundry and hot meal collection and delivery (from a large centralised city kitchen and laundry), as well as the transportation of supplies and goods. These utopian ideas might seem fanciful, but in fact we can no longer afford our inefficient nuclear family dwellings on environmental as well as social justice grounds. I argue for radical new ideas around post-fossil fuel communalism.

IS: You mention Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein’s belief that transformative change is most likely to occur during and after societal crises. Do you think the coronavirus outbreak and the unprecedented impacts it is having on society could be one such crisis?

SH: Absolutely. On one hand we’re seeing worrying signs in terms of the impact of the crisis on gendered care work – as childcare and the cooking of three meals a day are abruptly shifted from the paid to the unpaid economy it’s women who are, in many cases, picking up the slack (a sharp rise in women’s unemployment in the US is likely to be matched by UK figures). On the other hand, this crisis is a brutal reminder that the care labour we all rely on to survive is not work that ‘just gets done’. Despite the blip of the 1950s, with its myth of the Perfect Housewife in her Ideal Home, the two world wars were huge system shocks that ushered in radical changes in social roles and set the ground for Second Wave feminism. I hope that this will be the case for the Covid-19 crisis, not least in terms of our increased appreciation for the ‘pink collar workers’ – the cleaners, nurses and carers – who are at the frontline of the Coronavirus battle and whose poorly remunerated labour is part of the broader picture of our social devaluation of ‘women’s work’.

The Home Stretch is published by Atlantic Books, priced £14.99.

Book review. The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does The Dishes by Sally Howard

Book review. The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does The Dishes by Sally Howard
By Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
27 April 2020

HOUSEWORK, and who does it, was a key concern of the Second Wave Feminism of the 1970s, the time of the international Wages For Housework movement and Ann Oakley’s influential Housewife study.

Since then the issue has dropped off the agenda of mainstream feminism, Sally Howard, a London-based journalist, argues in her brilliant new book.

Certainly men do more domestic labour than they used to – an average of just one hour 20 minutes in 1971 compared to 17 hours a week in 2016, according to the UK Office for National Statistics. However, even this improvement lags far behind the 36 hours women spend, on average, doing household chores today. Indeed, the unfair distribution of work persists even when both partners are working (I should say we are talking about heterosexual partners – same sex relationships seem to result in different outcomes).

This “second shift” that women have to work is exacerbated by marriage and having children – what Howard calls “the Parent Labour Trap”. These key life events tend to reinforce traditional gender roles, she explains, with tasks defined as female usually daily, monotonous and menial, and so-called male tasks, like gardening and DIY, usually “occasional and dispensable”.

Understandably, many privileged women have sought to escape the unequal workload by employing domestic labourers – usually poor non-British women – something Howard opposes. She notes, incredibly, “there are more live-in domestic workers in London today than there were in the 1890s.”

It’s a wide-ranging treatise, with fascinating explorations of the history of Home Economics, how technological changes have impacted women’s’ lot (spoiler: not much) and the rise of “cleanfluencers” and “instamoms” on social media today. The chapter on utopian visions and alternative communities is particularly interesting – I had never heard of self-taught architect Alice Constance Austin and the feminist, socially-egalitarian Californian city she was commissioned to design in 1915. It was never built but the plans featured a radical layout of “kitchenless homes… connected by a system of underground tunnels used for commuting, laundry and hot meal collection and delivery (from a large centralized city kitchen and laundry).”

Turning to how we might “reboot the stalled domestic revolution”, Howard argues “many of the great successes of feminism have come in moments when boots were on the ground”. For example, the legendary 1975 women’s general strike in Iceland, in which 90 percent of adult women left their jobs and families to march in the streets, led to equal gender pay rights being enshrined in Icelandic law a year later.

Inspiring, smart and wryly humorous, The Home Stretch deserves to become a landmark Feminist text.

The Home Stretch is published by Atlantic Books, priced £14.99.

The persistence of traditional gender norms in housework: interview with Professor Anne McMunn

The persistence of traditional gender norms in housework: interview with Professor Anne McMunn
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 August 2019

From the Everyday Sexism Project, to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s bestselling essays and the #MeToo movement, there has been a huge upsurge in Feminist activism in recent years. However, while the topic of unpaid domestic work – aka housework – was a key concern of the second wave Feminism in the 1970s, it seems to be largely ignored by contemporary mainstream Feminism.

In an attempt to get a handle on the issue, Ian Sinclair asked Anne McMunn, Professor of Social Epidemiology at University College London, about her new co-authored article Gender Divisions of Paid and Unpaid Work in Contemporary UK Couples, published in the journal Work, Employment and Society.

Ian Sinclair: What does the academic evidence tell us about who does unpaid domestic work?

Anne McMunn: Studies from all over the world consistently show that women do much more unpaid domestic work than men. Studies in the UK have also shown that this gender difference really opens up when couples become parents; couples tend to revert to more traditional gender roles after the transition to parenthood and this establishes patterns of behaviour within the household that persist over time. However, as we continue to make progress towards gender equality in the workplace and more people from the ‘Millennial’ generation are starting to form families (Millennial men, in particular say they would like to spend more time with their children), there has been speculation that persistent gender inequality in domestic work may start to decline. In this study we wanted to see if this was the case. We looked at a large study of more than 8,500 contemporary opposite-sex couples from across the UK to see how they share or divide housework, paid employment, and care for children and adults. We used a technique that grouped couples together based on how similar they were in the ways they divided these four types of work between them.

IS: What explanations have researchers given for this disparity?

AM: Explanations for the persistent gender disparity in housework have tended to fall into two broad camps. One takes an economic perspective and argues that women do more housework because they have less economic bargaining power within relationships. This is because women tend to earn less than men as a result of the gender pay gap, but also because mothers in the UK often work part-time as a way of combining employment with parenthood. Some studies show that women who earn more than their partner do less housework than other women, but they still do more than their male partners. So differences in pay alone don’t seem to explain the disparity.

The other type of explanation points to gender socialisation processes and argues that men and women internalise the norms and behaviour they witness growing up at home but also in the wider society around them in school, the media and elsewhere. These socialisation processes are more difficult to study, but are sometimes investigated by comparing gender differences in domestic work across countries with different gender norms or by studying couples’ attitudes to gender roles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women with more egalitarian attitudes do less housework than traditional women, but even those with egalitarian attitudes do more housework than their male partners. Because we had information from both members of the couple in our study we were able to look at the gender attitudes within the couple jointly. We wondered whether couples might share housework equally when they both held egalitarian beliefs.

IS: What were the main conclusions of your new research?

AM: Our analysis identified eight different groups which characterised the ways in which couples divide these four types of work in the UK. In all but two small groups women did more housework than men. Even in our largest group (which accounted for over 40% of couples) in which both the man and woman were employed, usually full-time, and who tended to be younger and not have children to look after, women did much more housework than men. The majority of women in this group did between 10-20 hours of housework per week while the majority of men in this group did less than five hours of housework per week. Women and men only shared housework equally in a small group (6% of couples) in which the woman was the employed main earner and the man was not employed or worked part-time. And there was a very small group (1% of couples) in which men did more housework than women; all of the men in this group spent more than 20 hours per week doing housework.

Shared egalitarian attitudes towards gender roles were associated with more equal divisions of work within couples, but even within these couples women did more housework than men.

From these results we concluded than gender equality in divisions of different types of work within couples remains rare in the UK and gender norms in relation to gender divisions of work remain strong.

IS: How might we achieve a more equal division of unpaid domestic work?

AM: Tackling this persistent unequal division of domestic labour probably requires a multi-pronged approach. We might seek to change social norms through early education and through both traditional and social forms of media. As parents we can be more aware of our own behaviours and the messages they send to our children. However, even when couples share egalitarian attitudes and wish to share unpaid domestic work and paid employment equally, a lack of affordable, high-quality childcare, and stigma around flexible working, particularly in male-dominated sectors, may make doing so difficult. Examples from Nordic countries have shown that men are much more likely to take up paternity leave if it is well-paid and targeted, and we know that fathers who are more involved with their children at the start remain more involved as children grow older which studies show has benefits for the whole family.

Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_McMunn.

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.

Interview: Ann Oakley on housework

Interview: Ann Oakley on housework
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 August 2014

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Ann Oakley’s Housewife.

Based on Oakley’s PhD research, the pioneering feminist book looks at the role of the housewife in modern industrialised society. “The study of domestic labour was not taken seriously at all – it wasn’t understood to be a topic, in fact”, Oakley tells me as we sit in her office at the Institute for Education in London where she is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy.

Interviewing 40 women living in suburban London, Oakley, now 70, found they tended to be dissatisfied because of the monotony, fragmentation and social isolation inherent in the role of housewife. Therefore, as “housework is directly opposed to the possibility of human self-actualisation” she concluded with a call to abolish the housewife role. “I was being deliberately provocative”, she explains about the book’s final chapter which also called for the abolition of the traditional family and the abolition of traditional gender roles.

Four decades later, what’s changed? “I think the whole notion of women being housewives has changed”, she replies. “If you asked women now to talk about themselves as housewives they wouldn’t know what you were talking about really.” But while she concedes men do more housework today, she explains it’s still not equal. “I don’t think there is any study in the world which shows it’s equal.”

Sure enough, in the newly published 2014 Global Trends survey 70 percent of British women said they are mostly responsible for cooking, food shopping and household cleaning. These findings are supported by research from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (2013) and the Institute for Public Policy Research (2012), both of which show British women still do the lion’s share of domestic labour.

“Most of the change that has happened since the 70s has been, in my view, fairly superficial”, Oakley says. “The change in behaviour is probably less than the professed attitude – what people say is more egalitarian than what they do.”

In particular, Oakley’s 1970s research was interested in the inequality of responsibility. “In so far as men did housework it was construed by the men and women as him helping her with the housework – not the other way round. In terms of the issue of responsibility, what happened in the 1970s is still happening now.”

When men do pitch in studies show they generally end up doing the tasks that are arguably more enjoyable and leisurely – gardening and DIY, for example. Oakley agrees: “In the area of childcare, it’s still the case that men are more likely to be doing the more enjoyable side of childcare, rather than changing the dirty nappies.”

So why does this grossly unfair status quo continue? “Patriarchy is the simple explanation”, Oakley argues. “Men are a privileged group and there is no reason they should give up their privilege unless they are forced to do so.” This is where feminism comes in: “Most of the change in men’s behaviour, I suspect has come about because the women they are involved with have put pressure on them to change. Men haven’t, en masse, decided that housework is a good thing to do.”

Oakley sees increasing men’s involvement in housework and childcare as an important step in addressing the social problem of masculinity – a topic she explored in a 2011 Guardian article co-written with fellow feminist academic Cynthia Cockburn. Quoting government statistics, they noted “men were perpetrators in 91% of all violent incidents in England and Wales… 81% for domestic violence, 86% for assault, 94% for wounding, 96% for mugging, 98% for robbery.” In addition, Ministry of Justice figures show men to be responsible for 98% of sexual offences, 92% of drug offences and 89% of criminal damage. “The evidence is that being involved in basic care work, being involved in very close relationships with dependent people including children, is something that brings out qualities which are traditionally associated with being a woman – caring, altruism and all that”, Oakley says. “That happens with men too but they have to first of all be willing to put themselves in the position so those changes can occur.”

According to 2011 research by Churchill Home Insurers one in seven of the population pay for outside hired help to do housework. Oakley doesn’t buy this as a solution to the problem. “That’s not a solution because very often the people who are hired are women and they are underpaid, their job conditions and security are not good”, she says. “And usually it is the woman in the household who is responsible for looking after the hired help. So you’ve simply passed the oppression on in some sense.”

Oakley’s politics and research interests were energised by the second-wave feminism of the early 1970s. 40 years later many commentators argue we are currently in the midst of fourth-wave feminism, with groups and campaigns such as UK Feminista, Everyday Sexism and No More Page 3 evidence of renewed feminist activism.

“I don’t know enough about it really”, Oakley admits when I ask her about the resurgent movement. However, she feels that some of the media discussions around contemporary feminism she is aware of have little in common with the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. She points to the current focus on the representation of women in positions of power: “We were not arguing for women’s share of the top jobs. We were talking about basic issues, we were arguing on the level of basic reproductive rights and access to childcare – state-provided childcare. It was all about doing something about the domestic oppression and not about undoing the privilege at the top.” Rather than getting a bigger portion of the pie, she argues “It was about changing the pie. We wanted a different kind of pie.”

She is philosophical when I suggest her work, and the work of many other feminists from her generation, are rarely cited in the popular feminist polemics being published today. “Time moves on – it’s one of the sad things that so much has to be re-discovered time and again”, she says. In fact she says she found one book that referred to her as dead – “The late Ann Oakley.”

“I’m not late in the sense I’m dead and also I’m quite a punctual person”, she quips.

Having read Housewife and Oakley’s stupendously good Gender and Planet Earth – a book that moves from men and meat-eating to critiquing post-modernism – I can safely say contemporary feminism is missing a lot by ignoring Oakley’s ground-breaking work. As the recent surveys mentioned above show, housework continues to be a source of inequality between men and women. Housewife could therefore be the key text in the revival of feminist concern over housework that must take place if women are to gain any semblance of equality in the future.

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