Gender relations in the home

A little post to get the year off to an uncontroversial start!

I mentioned a book I’ve read – “Children of the Lucky Country” below. Here is a quote from it relating to the division of labour at home between the genders (p. 83).

In the past, the way society arranged for the care of children was to ensure that women had little choice but to take on almost the whole of this work. They could not be financially independent, so they had to rely on their husbands for their income. In return, their husbands expected them to take full responsibility for the domestic work and caring for the children (whether or not they actually liked this role). Now women can earn their own incomes, and a majority choose to do so. Who, then takes care of the children? At present the assumption is that this responsibility still rests largely with women.

There’s a particular barrow being pushed here. Note how the expectations (and I guess the collusive power) of men shape the first world. No doubt there’s some truth to that. But there’s some truth to lots of presentations of complex phenomena. Undoubtedly some women actively resisted the institutions in the way the past was organised. No doubt many resented requirements for women to give up many respectable professional jobs once they married. But plenty of women wouldn’t have resented the rules and would have accepted the way things were set up. So why put the point in such a loaded way? Especially when it’s not necessary to point of the book which is a heartfelt plea for children’s interests to be more fully represented in our social thinking and our institutions. (a cause with which I could not agree more by the way hence my reading the book).

Most women and men agree today that the kinds of rules that came under attack in the 1960s and 70s and which have been swept away are unacceptable. So it seems to be adding gratuitous (gender political) baggage to one’s cause to set out ‘the past’ as rigged by one side.

Now read the description of the state of the world today. I assume what everyone reports, namely that women do substantially more work around the house even when they do as much work as their male partners. Why is that? The authors say its ‘an assumption’ that the responsibility still largely rests with women. I read (between the lines and perhaps conditioned by the earlier content of the para) that these assumptions are being made by men. (It seems odd that they’d be made by women, because it seems to be a pretty understandable bugbear of women that men don’t do more of that work.) So the problem is being driven by men’s ‘assumptions’.

I wonder what readers think of an alternative cause for the same phenomenon. (Note: as is the way with such things, the two explanations are unlikely to be mutually exclusive I suspect they each reinforce the other). In my experience women are generally more fastidious about the state of a house than men are. (Since writing this I’ve road tested it on about five people and they all agree though no doubt some wouldn’t and like all such generalisations, there will be plenty of exceptions). There’s an explanation for why they do more housework right there! Men might be trenchant about it “if she wants a tidy house she can damn well tidy it herself, I’d rather watch the Rugby or read”. Or it might simply evolve from least resistances. Women are prompted by the discomfort of dirt and untidiness before men are, and as a result they end up addressing their own discomfort. In this explanation men are not ‘expecting’ their partners to do it. But their partners do end up spending more time of these tasks.

I don’t know whether one would characterise this as unfair or as some dereliction of duty by men. I expect men spend more time on organising the financial affairs of the family. I doubt that in most cases this counterbalances the additional work women do, but if it is true, it illustrates my point (or rather the assertion I’m tentatively offering) that to some substantial extent work follows temperament and that as experienced, the division of labour emerges from temperamental choices by both parties.

The situation regarding children can be explained in a similar way although many men would be more loath to let themselves off quite as lightly from some obligation of equal participation. My own observation is that men are less patient with kids, more quickly and easily bored by them especially younger ones. They enjoy playing with their kids but at some stage reach for the paper. I don’t particularly want to defend this though to the extent that it emerges from temperamental dispositions that are genetic, it would be well to try to discuss the issue with that in mind. And to the extent that it is culturally driven men may not be much easier to change at least in this generation.

Wanting men to share equally in the upbringing of their kids seems like a good idea. But if we are going against preferences that are fairly deeply ingrained, it must surely be worth keeping that in mind. And the words of the authors of the book are of relevance. Their comment that the unfortunate situation where women looked after the kids “whether or not they actually liked this role” is a reminder that, though fairness between adult partners is important, another issue of great importance is that parenting roles are also responsive to the respective temperament and inclinations of each of the parents. This is of importance for fairness between the parents, but it also goes to something of greater importance again the welfare of the kids.

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38 Responses to Gender relations in the home

  1. Bring Back EP at LP says:


    I agree on the fastidious around the house. Their standards are much higher than ours and I didn’t get married until almost 40 so I was used to cleaning around the house.

    Politically incorrect but women love being with their children. Part of the rise of part-time employment explains this. They want to work but NOT at the expense of their children. Men have never had this choice and so have never tried to gain this. Women coming from rarely working instantly wanted this and employers responded knowing the flexibility in it as well.

  2. Pavlov's Cat says:

    I know anecdote isn’t evidence, but it is illustration, which is all I’m claiming to provide here: a male friend, academic, quite well-read in gender theory, whined to me once (when his kids were adolescent boys still living at home and his wife was in fulltime employment) that the state of their bathroom sink made his gorge rise. ‘Why don’t you clean it yourself?’ I asked in as gentle a tone as I could muster. He looked surprised; this solution had clearly not occurred to him. ‘I don’t know how,’ he replied.

  3. Rob says:

    I’ve never understood the argument that anecdote isn’t evidence. Whyever not?

  4. Ron says:

    Men clean when it is [absolutely?] necessary, women clean for the sake of cleaning.

    When I look at a bit of dust on the mantelpiece and consider cleaning it but have something better [more interesting?] to do, I remember how long I will be in the grave and do the more interesting thing.

    Oh … and when household chores are talked about why does it only involve those inside the house? Time lawnmowing, yardwork, gutter cleaning, car maintenance, external painting, trips to the tip etc were added to the household chores shared list – it might help balance the scales to a degree.

  5. whyisitso says:

    “I didn’t get married until almost 40 so I was used to cleaning around the house.”

    You must have been a most unusual man in your under-40 days, Homer. I got married in the second half of my twenties and I never did get used to cleaning around the house/flat etc, even when I lived on my own.

  6. C.L. says:

    Nicholas, forgive the intrusion. But with Ken avoiding the issue, I wondered if you might tell me why my sidebar link has been removed from the new site. (The only one). Al Bundy’s remains there, despite his blog having been deleted.

    Just curious.

  7. derrida derider says:

    I’ve never understood the argument that anecdote isn’t evidence. Whyever not? – Rob
    Well, it’s evidence of something. But the trouble is that I can always find another anecdote showing the opposite of the point you want to make.

    BTW, it’s usually expressed in George Stigler’s formulation: “the plural of anecdote is not data”.

  8. Rob says:

    dd, there was a line of argument at catallaxy a few days ago that personal observation is worthless as well. So how are ordinary people – as opposed to statisticians and sociologists – supposed to make up their minds?

  9. Harry Clarke says:

    Women are naturals for housework given their links to childbearing. Young girls play with dolls while young boys play with trucks and trains. It is factual and its recognition has only become politically incorrect through absurdities such as the crazy end of the women’s movement that believes paid work = liberation while raising kids = slavery. You can express the general idea more neutrally but this commonplace observation says it all.

    What was wrong with the nuclear family model where women, who married, mainly looked after the kids while dad mainly earned the income? A division of labour makes sense and in no sense devalues women unless you believe paid work is essential for life. Why not one based on genetics with the sensible exception that if the genders prefer to reverse the role (perhaps because the woman has better earning power while the male wants to take care of the house) thats fine? People who get married but do not seek to have kids have misplaced priorities but don’t enter into this debate anyway.

    This only sounds monstrously right-wing because as a society we have our feet off the ground. Get the basics right: Decent family arrangements that protect and encourage kids. It isn’t liberation for everyone to be part of the paid work force — just naive ideology that drives up house prices.

  10. Nicholas Gruen says:


    Ken is taking it easy. You should too.

    I doubt very much if you’ve been deliberately removed from the sidebar. But if you have been, I certainly don’t know of it.

  11. I’ve never understood the argument that anecdote isn’t evidence. Whyever not?

    Rob – Because there can be no confidence in its generalisability. Just because I perceive something, or it happens to me, says nothing in itself about whether this is representative of the whole population, or whatever subset of it I’m trying to suggest it represents (ie – “all men are”…).

  12. So how are ordinary people – as opposed to statisticians and sociologists – supposed to make up their minds?

    Anyone can inform themselves of the evidence as to whatever they’re interested in.

  13. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Yes Mark, but one’s own experiences – and one’s impressions as to the extent to which they’re typical – are a critical reality check. (Though of course one has to try to be aware of one’s own possible unrepresentativeness).

    That’s what I’m finding as I research this topic. No doubt I’ll find it, but in about half a day of looking around I haven’t found a single article which entertains even the possibility that the household division of labour is driven to a large extent by temperament. It’s all politico and psychobabble that manages to elide the simple idea of choices emerging from simple preferences and temperament. Yet the more I read, the less convincing the other explanations seem – those for instance of comparative advantage (men being paid more) and power. More on this to come I hope.

  14. I don’t disagree, Nicholas, but I think we need to beware of generalising from our own experiences.

    Btw – it’s a bit odd reading your comments as coming from “Administrator”.

  15. Nicholas Gruen says:


    Teething problems old boy – and I don’t really disagree with you either.

    I’m reliably informed I’m logged in as NG this time – not ‘administrator’ and I’ve fixed the previous comment – as mine and not administrators too.

  16. David Tiley says:

    “So how are ordinary people – as opposed to statisticians and sociologists – supposed to make up their minds?”

    At the moment it seems to be okay to catch people who might know and torture them.

    I know, a trash remark. Here’s a genuine oddity though: given that men are supposed to be temperamentally unable to be neat and tidy, how come so many sheds are meticulously organised?

  17. yobbo says:

    Utility, I would guess. You can’t work in a shed that’s got crap everywhere, but you can sure as hell sit on your arse and watch TV even if your house is filthy. I’m living proof.

  18. Jennifer says:

    I think you need to separate the housework and childcare as two quite separate jobs that women tend to do a lot more of than men. The two are different, because I know very very few people (women or men) who like housework. It’s one of those things that has to be done. But childcare is a job that many people (men as well as women) find incredibly rewarding as well as hard work.

    Housework – as a women myself (unlike most of your commentators) I don’t believe that we are more fastidious than men, just by the time we get into our twenties, the product of a huge amount of conditioning that (for women) says that its our job to pick up after people and (for men) says that pretending to be incompetent and waiting it out is a great way to get out of it (and that it’s women’s work). Have a look at an early twenties couple (without kids) these days. You’ll probably find a much more equal sharing of the housework than an equivalent older couple.

    Childcare – that’s an incredibly complex topic. But the short answer is that as most women take at least six months maternity leave, they end up with a huge advantage in knowing how to do childcare by the time any couple moves back to full time work. If women weren’t better at it without six months fulltime training, compared with a bit of training on the weekends and evenings (and that’s providing the expert is willing to train them) then there would be something wrong with them. That doesn’t mean that women are innately better than men, just that they have learned on the job. And men are just as capable of learning, but rarely get the opportunity, as once someone is demonstrably more competent, it’s harder for them to learn without conscious effort from both parents.

    A declaration of interest here – I’m the breadwinner in my family. My husband has an evening part time job, and he does a great job of looking after our children and our house in that order. We both made a conscious effort to give him some learning time at the beginning, and now he is the more competent parent (just watch either of us trying to get our two preschoolers out of the door in under 10 minutes).

    Both of us hate housework, but he does more of it, as he is at home more, and has to live in it.

  19. Homer Paxton ( BBEPat LP at other blogs) says:

    that is what exists in our household except now the kids are at primary school.

    My wife always sees problems with my cleaning of the house and could never understand how I would play with them, both boys, to the detriment of not doing the household chores.

    The young ones was not as hyperbolic as it seemed when first viewing the series!!

  20. Pavlov's Cat says:

    There are also distinctions to be made within the genders. In my own house-sharing phases, with one or more people of either or both genders, I have always been prepared to do the ironing in order to get out of cleaning the bathroom. Rosters based on task preference do actually work.

    Also, heterosexually attached men should be aware that, however unPC it may be, any woman who is not knackered and resentful from a long day’s housework is going to be that much more up for a bit of a good time at the end of the day.

  21. Rafe says:

    This is off topic but why are newts unwelcome on this site?

    Some of my best friends have been described as newts, well, pissed as newts anyway.

    For more information petaining to newts

  22. Amanda says:

    A couple of comments…

    Is there the suggestion that the care of children and the fastidiousness of housecleaning is a biological/genetic difference? Admittedly people whose reproductive systems are based on vaginas and ovaries that are functioning* are required to give birth to offspring – but the rest doesn’t necessarily follow

    Barbara Pocock has done some research on school aged pre teens and adolescents about their ideas of child rearing and house cleaning. What was interesting was over 90% of the respondents said that they wanted to share the cleaning and the caring, however it was mostly the male respondents who said that if they could get out of it they would – suggesting that culture plays a role as well (to what extent who can say).

    * I use this terminology because there are many people who from birth had vaginas and ovaries but for whatever reason do not function, and the issue of transgender surgery…

  23. Nicholas Gruen says:


    Since you ask, ‘No Newts’ is a piece of foolishness from a series of cartoons I did featuring frogs such as the one you see above.

  24. Nicholas Gruen says:


    you asked “Is there the suggestion that the care of children and the fastidiousness of housecleaning is a biological/genetic difference?”

    It’s not necessary to the argument I’m making. I’m saying that the division of labour is less foisted on women than is suggested in the quote – that it is more a freely chosen division of labour than it is given credit for in the quote. So I don’t need to know the extent to which it’s nature or nuture to make the claim. My own guess is that both reinforce each other.

  25. Nicholas Gruen says:


    I agree with most of the distinctions you make. Particularly childcare and ‘housework’ are different, though there are plenty of people who enjoy housework. I think some people do get satisfaction from keeping a place clean and tidy – but I won’t press that point. But ‘housework’ usually includes cooking and I love cooking. (I do much less of it than when I was single because my wife is so fastidious!). When I said this to Mark B, he said he hates cooking but enjoys washing up. So it takes all sorts.

  26. morganzola says:

    Of course it suits many blokes to claim that the continuing gender imbalance in unpaid domestic labour is a result of “temperament”, rather than learned behaviour. However, although it has been established above that anecdotal evidence is inherently unreliable, my partner informs me that the sight of me wielding the vacuum cleaner, or standing at the sink, produces lustful impulses upon which she sometimes acts spontaneously.

    This, however, may well be down to her “temperament”.

  27. Ron says:

    You’re lucky, morganzola.

    My neighbour tells me she can’t stand the sight of her husband doing those chores; she says it would worry her that he is becoming a poof (which I wouldn’t mind because he’s kinda cute).

  28. Amanda, do you have a reference for Barbara Pocock’s work? She’s a very good scholar, and one, in my experience, who thinks outside the square.

    Pavlov’s Cat:

    In my own house-sharing phases, with one or more people of either or both genders, I have always been prepared to do the ironing in order to get out of cleaning the bathroom. Rosters based on task preference do actually work.

    Not always! In my experience of share houses, having offered (and done) all sorts of tasks to get out of cleaning the bathroom, the person (of whatever gender) who’s offered to do the latter can always find a more pressing engagement.

    One could also refer to false advertising on the part of those cleaning product makers who claim that you just have to spray your shower and all the scum will magically disappear in this context!

  29. David Tiley says:

    The scum does magically disappear! Out the door to the footy, down to the pub, even to Uni. Takes a while to disappear them right out of the household though.

  30. Pavlov's Cat says:

    Don’t use that stuff, Mark, it smells disgusting! (As well as not working.)

  31. I know! This is depressingly reminding me that I need to clean the bathroom soon!

  32. Pavlov’s Cat – I’m happy to report that my cleaning the kitchen floors, surfaces, vacuuming the whole place and various other bits of tidying up while my flatmate was away over Xmas/New Year has resulted in his cleaning the shower and bath while I was asleep! Perhaps the demonstration effect is the best way of ensuring an equitable (?) distribution of household duties?

  33. Pavlov's Cat says:

    Mark — maybe he’s been reading this blog!

    Either that or guilt.

  34. Pingback: catallaxy » Blog Archive » Around the blogs

  35. Andrew Leigh says:

    I wasn’t bothered by the ideological spin, but found COTLC a bit breezy on some topics ( I’d expected something a little meatier. Then again, I may not be the median reader.

  36. Andrew,

    Yes, my guess was that it was a bit dumbed down by the publisher. It was footnoted, but only loosely. I tried to find the source for some claims and they weren’t footnoted.

  37. Pingback: Club Troppo » Gender division of labour in the home - the column

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