Housework and the gender divide

Talk of the ‘new man’ has been somewhat exaggerated, says Dr Colm O’Connor in his weekly column in WoW!
Housework and the gender divide

TIME TO PLAY THEIR PART: “Men are positively disposed to ‘helping out’ at home. However, the problem is that they see their roles as ‘helping out’ rather than ‘taking responsibility’,”says Dr Colm O’Connor

HAVING worked with couples over the past 20 years, I am sad to say that the view of the ‘new man’, the domestically involved father, has been somewhat exaggerated.

Research on gender roles in the family shows that the amount of childcare men performed rose throughout the 1980s and ’90s, but then began to level off without ever reaching parity.

Mothers still shoulder 65% of child-care work. While the attitudes of and toward fathers has changed, the actual behavior of men has not changed as much. A lot done, more to do!

Psychologists attribute the discrepancy between mothers’ expectations and reality to a benign but nonetheless successful male resistance. This happens not just with more traditional couples but with relatively progressive ones.

It is still very common for me to find with couples that she is still hoping that he would contribute more at home.

Now, I do find men are positively disposed to ‘helping out’ at home. However, the problem is that they see their roles as ‘helping out’ rather than ‘taking responsibility’. ‘Helping out’ still means that he does not carry the responsibility for things — he feels that all he must do is indicate that he is more than willing to help.

Parity is hard, and the discrepancy in roles lays the groundwork for a kind-of passive male resistance. So, men will say, “I am happy to help as long as she tells me what she wants me to do — and then I will do it”. This is passively avoiding an equal role and reinforces a separation of responsibilities — “it’s her job, but I will help her”.

So, he might want to watch the game on Saturday afternoon and, in order to do so, he may check with her in the morning – ‘Is there anything you want me to do?” and she, because its simply too hard to have to give him a set of instructions, says ‘No, your fine”, and he then says ‘Thanks, that’s great. Ill watch the match so. Let me know if you need anything’. Brilliant!

If you focus on the workplace, this is more evident. Studies show that male employees sit back while their female co-workers perform the tasks that don’t lead to promotion. A series of studies found that in co-ed groups, women are 50 percent more likely than men to volunteer to take on work that no one else wants to do.

But in all-male groups, the men volunteer just as readily. For example, if someone is going to go out and get coffee for the group it’s more likely to be a woman. Women do the work because they’re expected to, and men do not do it because they do not expect that they should.

At home and at work women are often annoyed by this, while many men don’t seem to realise there is a problem. “What’s the big deal – its only a coffee”, he says.

At home I find that couples offer different explanations for the imbalance of responsibilities for household tasks, housekeeping, and childcare. The first is that men will say that women take over activities like bedtime, homework and laundry because men perform these tasks inadequately. Husbands will claim that their wives will disparage their efforts and take over.

The second explanation is that women will say that he typically forgets, does a bad job, or is simply oblivious to what needs to be done. It’s not uncommon for a wife to say simply that she cannot trust him to do certain things because his attention is limited and he either forgets to do something or does it just to get me off his back. Its not uncommon to hear a man saying, “I just don’t think that the things she wants done are that important.”

Worst excuse of all is that some men blame their wives’ personalities. He might say the reason she does so much is because she is so stressed-out and uptight. You can imagine that in these marriages she grows to resent him while he becomes detached.

All this comes at a cost to mother’s well-being, as they forgo leisure time, ambitions and sleep. Studies have shown that wives who view their household responsibilities as unjust are more likely to suffer from depression than those who do not. When their children are young, employed women (but not men) take a hit to their health as well as to their earnings — and the latter never recovers. Child-care imbalances also tank relationship happiness, especially in the early years of parenthood.

Division of labour in the home is one of the most important gender-equity issues of our time. Yet at the current rate of change, it will be about 75 more years before men worldwide assume half of the unpaid work that domesticity requires. If anything is going to change, men must stop resisting and women must let go. Equality is hard to achieve.

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