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Men often don’t see mess like women do – changing that could make housework more equal

man in glasses putting on yellow rubber gloves for cleaning
Even men who want to do their fair share of chores often fail to pull their weight. Koldunov/Shutterstock

Picture a professional couple, Jack and Jill, who are committed to a relationship in which household responsibilities are shared evenly. Now imagine Jack and Jill differ in how they see their home.

When Jill enters the messy kitchen, she sees the dishes as to be washed and the recycling bin as to be taken out. Jack, of course, sees there are dishes in the sink and the recycling bin is full. But these perceptions do not “tug” at him – he does not see the mess as tasks that must be done.

The results of our recent study suggest men and women are trained by society to see different possibilities for action when they look at mess in their home. We believe this insight could help heterosexual couples share chores more evenly too. But it’s important to understand the root causes of the issue.

According to a concept in psychology called “affordance theory”, when we look at objects and situations we see possibilities for actions. When you look at an apple you don’t just see it as red and shiny, you see it as edible.

You see what can be done with the apple. Jack and Jill look at the same things in the kitchen but they see different possibilities for action – different “affordances”. For Jill the dishes invite washing up, while for Jack they do not.

The couple are attuned differently to affordances for domestic tasks. Affordance theory can help explain why women shoulder a disproportionate amount of housework and childcare even when they work full time? This difference in how people perceive the domestic environment has a knock-on effect on how much how many chores Jack and Jill do, no matter their intentions.

If Jill is more sensitive to affordances for domestic tasks, she’s more likely to notice the dishes need washing up and be more motivated to do the task. It is likely Jack won’t even notice the disparity in workload.

If you don’t see the counter as “to be wiped”, you are less likely to notice when it has been wiped. This double-whammy of inequity and invisibility takes a considerable mental toll on women and puts a serious strain on relationships.

So what is to be done?

The first thing to say is that being less sensitive to certain affordances is not an excuse. When Jill complains to Jack that he never does the dishes, Jack saying “I just don’t see them as ‘to be washed’” does not get him off the hook, even if it is true. Jill can respond: “That’s exactly the problem you need to work on.” To pick up his fair share, Jack needs to change his perception.

The good news is affordance perceptions can be changed through practice and conscious effort. We get better at seeing a task-affordance by doing the task more and by consciously paying attention to cues about whether the task needs to be done.

Jill was not born to be more sensitive to the possibility of taking out the recycling bin than Jack. Those habits are, in part, shaped by social norms.

And when it comes to domestic work, these norms are gendered. From a young age, girls do more household chores than boys. Girls are being encouraged to play with toys like vacuum cleaners and dolls that encourage imitation of childcare activities.

Young dad and son do kitchen chores together
Socialising children from a young age to be responsible for housework can make a big difference to their attitude later in life. KlavdiyaV/Shutterstock

The central strategy involves shifting Jack’s mindset of what “pulling his weight” involves. What he needs to practice is not doing the chore (taking out the recycling is not that hard). He needs to take responsibility for consciously attending to whether there are dishes in the sink, how full the recycling is, whether there is milk in the fridge.

Think about learning how to drive. What the novice-driver needs to learn is not only how to shift gears (straightforward enough) but also to discern when gears need shifting. They can’t rely on “I’ll shift when the instructor tells me to.”

Society needs to change too

Cultivating your sensitivity to domestic affordances requires opportunities to practice. And this relies on the right kind of policies being in place. For example, shared parental leave.

There is ample evidence that after the arrival of children, women shoulder the lions’ share of caring work. At the same time, there is research suggesting fathers who take longer parental leave do more care-taking work well after the end of their parental leave.

Why is that? Looking after their children gives fathers the chance to hone caring skills: how to change a nappy, how to swaddle, how to comfort a fussy baby. But just as crucially, it allows fathers to learn to see when those caring tasks need doing. It attunes them to caring affordances. This in turn, leads to a more even distribution of caring duties in the long term.

Despite cultural, economic and legal gains by women over the last decades, the disparities in how much domestic work is done by women and men have proven difficult to overcome. Our paper shows that to redress the imbalance, it’s not enough to exhort men to do their equal share. Men need to take responsibility for seeing what needs doing.

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