The times have changed - so why haven't attitudes to the division of household work?
I was speaking to a friend recently who is juggling raising three young kids, running her own business and looking after the house. It’s almost a daily battle, she said, to get her husband to pitch in with his fair share of cooking, cleaning, laundering, and other domestic tasks that no one wants to do but need to get done.
“Where’s Women Lib got us?” she asked, more through frustration than anything else. “When we still end up doing the bulk of the housework. In fact, perhaps we are worse off now because we want to have it all as well.”
It’s true we do want to have it all – the kids, the career, the social life, the great partner – except we are still, it seems, heavily tied to the domestic chores that were once and largely still an expected part of a woman’s life. Australian women do almost five hours a day of unpaid work - including cleaning, cooking, shopping, taking care of children - which means we do more around the home than women in most other nations. Only women in Turkey, Portugal, Mexico and India do more unpaid work than us.
Here we are in 2014 – we run businesses, manage companies, are doctors and nurses and engineers – and yet when it comes to our home life it seems us women are stuck in a rut. It seems we have barely moved on from the time of our mother’s generation.
“Stop being chained to the kitchen sink” was a term often used by the feminists of the 1970s to inspire women to step out of the home and into the workplace. We managed to do that. We not only got into the workplace, we climbed the career ladder and smashed glass ceilings, but it seems the whole time the kitchen sink remained not far behind, always shackled to us.
You’d have thought that women in high-power positions would be immune to the constraints of domestic responsibility. Sadly, this is not so. Research by Professor Michael Bittman of the University of New England suggests that women who earn more than their husbands are likely to do as much housework as women who earn far less than their husbands. The reason this may be is:
“When women begin to earn more than their husbands, gender norms kick in. It isn't yet socially acceptable for men to be supported within relationships, to be ''feminised''. In order to show the world that this isn't the case - that her marriage is still ''traditional'' - a woman who earns more than her husband begins to do more of the housework”.
Is this really the case? Are women so worried about gender norms that we will work ourselves ragged both at work and at home? Are men so precious that they find being in a relationship with a woman who makes more money feminising? The world is changing. No wait, the world has changed. If you’re a guy with an awesome wife who makes good money do you really think it’s okay to sit on your bum and wait for her to clean up your mess when she gets home? And if you’re the woman in a relationship – no matter how much you make – are you going to not only vacuum the ‘welcome mat’ but be one as well? Do you think it’s perfectly acceptable to be walked all over by members of the household? I hope most women think it’s not.
There are many reasons why women still do most domestic chores. A part of us is emulating what our own mothers did at home. Our parents are our biggest influencers – we can’t help but find ourselves drifting into the roles they occupied as we were growing up. Women are also most likely to avoid conflict in order to maintain family harmony – if it means doing the dishes at night and being responsible for the children – so be it. We might silently resent our husbands but at least we don’t have to have a big row over it. Perhaps some of us are control freaks – we don’t trust our partners to cook, clean and raise the kids in a way we deem best. If they can’t do it our way then we might as well do it ourselves.
Whatever the reason, enough is enough. It seems incredible to me that we are having this conversation in this day and age. If men aren’t going to change their habits then it’s up to women to ensure that they don’t end up picking up the slack. The template needs to be set as soon as a couple get into a relationship – the expectations need to be in place that the female won’t be doing all the domestic chores.
As a woman it bears remembering that you’re a girlfriend, a partner or a wife but not a servant – not someone who will work for free, perhaps at the expense of everything else.
Saman Shad is a storyteller and playright.