Lowering Your Standards Doesn’t Solve Housework Inequities
Inevitably during the rounds of the housework wars, there’s a man who finds the neat solution that puts all blame where a sexist culture believes it completely belongs, on women. Feminists point out that women’s duties at home are cutting into either their work time or their free time or usually both, and if men did more work around the house, this would help. Why men won’t do more in analyzed to death.* Eventually a man pops in and says that it’s women’s fault for having too-high standards, an argument that starts with the gender essentialist assumption that all women’s standards are high and all men’s are low. This time, the argument comes from Jonathan Chait.
The assumption of much of the feminist commentary surrounding household chores assumes that there is a correct level of cleanliness in a heterosexual relationship, and that level is determined by the female. I think a little cultural relativism would improve the debate. The tidiness level of a home is a matter of simple preference with no right or wrong (except perhaps when you reach the antagonizing-municipal-authorities extremes of my brother’s pad.) My wife and I happily learned to converge on each other’s level of tidiness. We settled — fairly, I think — on a home that’s neater than I’d prefer to keep it, but less neat than she would. She does a little more housecleaning than I do.
I humorously characterized this as a solution wherein you cut the chores in half and stop expecting a man to do his half, and voila! A solution. Chait objected. Okay, fair enough. I’ll share my actual assessment of this solution.
There’s a reason that men like this “lower standards” solution: It both lowers the amount of work expected of them and keeps the balance of the work in their favor. Let’s assume, for sake of argument, that the average heterosexual couple has a 70/30 balance of housework duties, with her doing 70% and him doing 30%. Right now, the housework is being maintained at a high level of 100% cleanliness, which requires 15 hours a week of cleaning. This is a standard set by her, and she is doing 10.5 hours a week of cleaning and he is doing 4.5 hours a week. In addition, she is also doing 1.5 hours a week of nagging and, to be generous, he is enduring 1.5 hours a week of nagging.
Let’s implement the Chait solution, and reduce that to a 50% cleanliness standard, on the grounds that going below that would actually become a health hazard. This is the “male” level of cleanliness, which requires 7.5 hours a week. (I’m pulling these numbers out of my ass.) Now the woman is doing 5.25 hours a week and the man is doing 2.25 hours a week. For him, it seems like an awesome solution. He does less work, she has more free time, and when his mother tuts about how her son’s wife is a slob, that’s on her and not him. For the wife, it’s a mixed bag. Yes, she has more free time, but she still is doing the bulk of the housework and she doesn’t even get a cleaner house for it. It’s a solution that satisfies him completely, but doesn’t really do much to make her feel like her beliefs and her time is valued by him.
And that’s assuming that the man’s claim to “lower standards” is being made in good faith. In my experience, it’s really not—most men actually do like having a clean home as much as women do, or else hotels wouldn’t have daily maid service and the military would be unable to maintain its rigid cleanliness standards. But Chait admitted on Twitter that women do have varying standards. It seems kind of remarkable that regardless of whether a woman is a neatnik or a slob, her husband’s desired level of cleanliness always manages to fall below hers.
The chart that Chait uses suggests that simply lowering standards just doesn’t do it. While the number of total hours of housework went down from 1965 to 2011, men’s contribution still had to go up in order to have households not fall apart.
(I’m assuming the housework numbers include cooking, putting my guess at how much cleaning needs to be done about right.) Right now, the average amount of time spent on housework a week is 28 hours instead of 36 hours. Women do 14 hours less of housework a week. Of that, only 43% has been because men picked up the slack. A full 57% of the drop has been from lowered standards. Women have, in other words, implemented the Chait solution and yet they still do more of the housework. Men’s contributions have to go up. That’s all there is to it. All other solutions are simply distractions.
*The reason men don’t do more is simple. Housework is coded as women’s work, and so it has a Someone Else’s Problem field generator around it for men. Women can either point out the housework that a man needs to do and be a nag or do it themselves and give up their free time. There is no other solution as long as men don’t actively choose to do their own housework. Even if you hire someone, there are still daily grind things like doing dishes and cooking that need to be divided. That’s why most couples who have actually found an equitable balance in their lives do so by explicitly laying out what needs to be done, by who, and deadlines are set. By assigning responsibilities, it makes it harder to see something dirty and move along, assuming that it’ll get done later—which usually means the wife gets to it first.