Experts have a new theory for why women feel more inclined than men to do domestic labour

Written by Charley Ross

Philosophers from Cambridge University are using “affordance theory” to explain why men can be more discerning when it comes to household chores.

Heterosexual couples may encounter this issue daily, particularly over the Christmas period – the tacit, sometimes silent and sexist expectation that a woman will do more of the unpaid, domestic labour.

A May 2021 study found that globally, women spend 40% more time on unpaid work than men. Obviously, patriarchal attitudes underpin this gap. But what if there’s also a psychological, or philosophical, reason why these inequalities occur?

Philosophers at the University of Cambridge are using “affordance theory” to explain why the perception of what can and should be done in terms of domestic labour can differ between men and women. In other words, what men perceive can be “afforded” – ie whether or not a domestic task needs to do be done – can be completely different to what a woman perceives. 

While women have been known to carry out more domestic labour than men for years, Dr Tom McClelland views the persistence of gendered attitudes towards domestic labour as proof that this issue goes beyond the impact of traditional gender roles.

“The fact that stark inequalities in domestic tasks persisted during the pandemic, when most couples were trapped inside, and that many men continued to be oblivious of this imbalance, means this is not the full story,” says McClelland, from Cambridge University’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

McClelland and his colleagues believe that the neuroscience around this comes down to whether or not an individual perceives something like a dirty floor or crumbs left out on the counter as a “trigger for physical action”, such as cleaning it up. They suggest that women feel that physical trigger more often than men. 

They also discuss the “mental effort” required to “not to act on an affordance”, which describes the stress women may feel if they do not carry out domestic tasks when they feel they should.

He concedes, also, that certain domestic tasks are just naturally perceived by all as a woman’s job. “Some skills are explicitly gendered, such cleaning or grooming, and girls are expected to do more domestic chores than boys,” he says. “This trains their ways of seeing the domestic environment, to see a counter as ‘to be wiped’.”

So how can this wildly unequal domestic pattern be fixed, so women aren’t forever feeling inclined to clean up after everyone?

“Men should be encouraged to resist gendered norms by improving their sensitivity to domestic task affordances,” McClelland says. “A man might adopt a resolution to sweep for crumbs every time he waits for the kettle to boil, for example. 

“Not only would this help [men] to do the tasks they don’t see, it would gradually retrain their perception so they start to see the affordance in the future.”

Images: Getty 

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