Making sense of the household chore wars

Yes, men need to do their bit. But most women aren’t being ‘exploited’ by their partners.

Ella Whelan

Ella Whelan


Who does the washing up in your house? You or your partner? And who looks after the kids?

According to an article published in Bloomberg this week, American men are still doing far less work at home than their female counterparts. Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as well as a 2008 study by economist Valerie Ramey, Sarah Green Carmichael found that ‘the average full-time [American] working woman spends over 21 hours a week on housework’ – that is, on cooking cleaning, childcare and other unpaid labour in the home.

A similar study carried out a month ago by researchers at University College London found that British women weren’t much better off, carrying out ‘16 hours of household chores every week’. British men, on the other hand, clock in just six hours of housework per week, according to UCL’s survey of 8,500 heterosexual couples.

The stereotype of male partners being unable to put the toilet seat down or sort out their laundry is well-known – and is often more reality than myth. It is an unspoken truth that women are still largely expected to take on the chores and look after the kids. There’s a reason dads are celebrated for taking their bouncing babies out and about in papooses – it is still relatively unusual for a man to take on the lion’s share of childrearing.

Feminist movements of the past tried to do something about this disparity. The Wages for Housework movement began in Italy in the early 1970s, before it spread to New York and then across the US. It used a Marxist framework to claim that women were doubly exploited: it is not only the husband who enjoys the fruits of his wife’s unpaid labour, but also his employer.

Part of the reason such movements never took off was that most heterosexual couples do not see themselves as being in exploitative relationships. Fifty years later, heterosexual relationships are even less likely to be exploitative. Even though women today might still take on more of the housework or childcare, most couples will make the choices and arrangements that suit them. Rather than being chained to the kitchen sink, society now provides women with the freedom and space to make decisions about how they organise their working and home lives. Women are not required by law or coerced by social norms to spend their waking lives doing housework.

And yet there is still good reason to be concerned about the gendered segregation of housework. As Carmichael puts it in her Bloomberg article, ‘if women are going to make more strides in the boardroom, they need to get out of the laundry room’. The key difference between men working long hours outside of the home and women doing chores in the sitting room is that one is public and one is private. Your husband might be working extremely hard to bring home a wage, perhaps even harder than you mopped the kitchen floor, but the benefit he enjoys from his role goes beyond his salary – he is out in the world and engaged in public life. Housework, on the other hand, can often be an isolating experience.

So how do we address this imbalance? Carmichael points to a German study which shows that couples who share the housework typically have more and better sex – knowledge which she says could ‘send husbands rushing to the laundry room’. A study showing that daughters who observe their fathers doing housework go on to develop broader career aspirations might also encourage men to be more proactive, she suggests.

The Wages for Housework movement died a long time ago, and recent campaigns do little to inspire. In 2016, the Everyday Sexism project encouraged households to take on the #ChoreChallenge. Couples were asked to note which chores each partner would normally do, and then attempt to ‘gender swap’ them for a year.

But, in truth, the unequal delegation of housework is unlikely to be solved by feminist campaigns that tell people how to organise their relationships. Contemporary feminism too often politicises and moralises the most personal and private aspects of women’s lives. This usually comes at the expense of fighting for women’s freedoms. Instead of calling on parents to ‘gender swap’ their caregiving roles, we should campaign for the provision of top-quality, free nationalised childcare. This could help to reduce burdens on men and women.

It also doesn’t help that today’s victimhood-driven feminism encourages young girls to fear the world – and men – as sexist and dangerous. Instead, we should try to instil the next generation with confidence, so that they can assert themselves in all areas of life, including the workplace and the home.

Yes, it is still the norm for women to do more housework than men. But it’s a norm that can only be challenged by free-thinking, empowered women, not by professional feminist handwringers who see our most intimate relationships as defined by exploitation.

Ella Whelan is a spiked columnist and the author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism.

Picture by: Getty.

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Stephen Kenny

12th October 2019 at 11:58 am

It seems to me that all these people shacking up and then being unhappy about their partner’s this-and-that, have just made a mistake to shack up.
Living with another person is as much a social construct as anything else. Get over that one, and you’ll be a great deal happier.
It often looks like people get married so they have something to complain about.

Will Carson

10th September 2019 at 3:15 am

Married women do more housework than married men. But single women living also do more housework than single men living alone. Since they have no husband to ‘benefit’ from such housework, this suggests that women do housework primarily for their own benefit, not that of a husband. A person no more deserves a salary for cleaning their own home than they do for washing behind their own ears in the shower:

Amy Denton

27th September 2019 at 5:34 pm

I think for me, the issue would be this: am I cleaning up after myself or am I cleaning up after myself and someone else. If I’m living with someone extremely untidy, then that makes me a servant if I have to clean up after him/her to have a safe, sanitary and comfortable environment. I would expect all adult and persons of accountable age in the home to clean up after themselves so they don’t create a burden on someone else. If I am working inside the home only, I am still not available as a slave to follow someone around picking up after them.

Claire D

3rd September 2019 at 2:35 pm

Surely it depends on;
who works the longest hours ?
who works hardest ?
who earns the most money ?
This simple idea is one of the reasons classic coupledom resulted in Man: he go out to work (hard), and Woman: she care for children (breastfeeding etc) + housework. No one in their right minds thinks that caring for children is easier than any other work, a woman with any sense puts her heart and soul into it because life itself depends on her doing so. Both sets of work are equally important, it’s actually rather beautiful, when it’s not terrible and leaves you both on the verge of the abyss. So, today in 21st century Britain the idea is apparently obsolete, except of course it is’nt because it works well, providing both man and woman understand the situation and respect each other’s roles and offer help to each other whenever they are able.
If either one is a slob and the other one is conscientious then that’s a problem which could, sadly, end the relationship. There’s always Relate.

Jim Lawrie

2nd September 2019 at 9:31 pm

Creepy weirdos who want to poke their noses into other people’s household affairs. They would no doubt extend the Named Person idea in Scotland to include housework.

Agnes B

2nd September 2019 at 7:36 pm

It’s not about chores. The moment the feminists made it ‘chores’, the whole project was lost. You get the usual responses – some illustrated here. IEEE: it’s a physical thing and women will never be physically ‘equal’. The ‘problem’ of chores, if there is one, would be cured if the fundamental issue was sorted out. That is…

It’s about value. I’m as valuable as a man, I’m not a second class human, or worker; I’m not of lesser value than a man just because I’m a woman. Therefore, it’s not automatic, that my time is of so little consequence that the best use of it is… Hovering, etc.,.. And given I’m as valuable, there shouldn’t be more invisible barriers in my way into the board room than are in men’s way.

Read the book “Why are do so many incompetent men become leaders?” He cleverly removes women from this question by saying.. We shouldn’t be lowering standards for women, we should be raising them for men. It’s an interesting read (if dispiriting for a woman).

James Knight

2nd September 2019 at 7:01 pm

For those who complain their partner is a deadbeat slob I can only echo Judge Judy:

You Picked Him!

cliff resnick

2nd September 2019 at 3:22 pm

I hate really hate housework but there again I’m old school!

cliff resnick

2nd September 2019 at 3:23 pm

I’d rather break rocks!

Agnes B

2nd September 2019 at 7:39 pm

I hate housework too. Folks will accept that you’re just old school… me on the otherhand, it’s heinous that I hate housework.

cliff resnick

3rd September 2019 at 11:19 am

Am I supposed to care!

James Hillier

2nd September 2019 at 2:48 pm

Once you factor in time spent at work and time spent commuting, there is no chore gap.

Agnes B

2nd September 2019 at 7:42 pm

Indeed, that’s why I’d like a house husband… unfortunately, they’re extremely rare. The way of the world unfortunately for me…

James Hillier

3rd September 2019 at 3:23 pm

Because most women don’t want househusbands, no matter what they say. So there’s no incentive for men to become one.

Also, unless you are less sensitive to disgust than most women or you find a husband who has the same standards as you, there’s a good chance it wouldn’t work out. You’d spend the whole time nagging him about the house being too untidy and he’d look around and honestly not see it.

Also, there’s the danger that it would go dead in the bedroom.

“Among males, the multivariable analysis also showed that sexlessness was associated with providing less than 20% of the house-hold income.”
Kim JH, Tam WS, Muennig P. Sociodemographic Correlates of Sexlessness Among American Adults and Associations with Self-Reported Happiness Levels: Evidence from the U.S. General Social Survey. Arch Sex Behav. 2017;46(8):2403–2415. doi:10.1007/s10508-017-0968-7

Of course, that doesn’t mean your househusband isn’t out there. He just might be very hard to find. And you may find you don’t want to keep him once you have him. But good luck anyway.

Amy Denton

27th September 2019 at 6:14 pm

Most women work outside the home and there is a “chore gap”. And as for things going dead in the bedroom. nothing will do it better than to come home after working, commuting..then cooking, cleaning up after and getting the kids to bed. A dead tired wife who watched her husband sit and relax while she just put in a 13 hour day is going to sit and watch her sleep after because she is going to have to do it all again tomorrow. BTW….weekend chores will also have to be done…no down time and then the resentment starts to seep into the relationship….to make marriage work,..everyone has to cooperate and work together side by side, all day, every day. or it goes dead in the bedroom because the rest of the marriage sucks.

Mark Bretherton

2nd September 2019 at 1:41 pm

Me & My wife have been living together for 20 years now. When we first moved in together we shared most of the chores as we both worked fulltime (although I did most of the cooking because she could burn water…). When she decided it was time to have kids and wanted to give up work, she took over the majority of them, aside from the washing up, ironing and gardening, although I would help out of a weekend with the cooking. Once kid 2 started school and she returned to university, I took over more even though she finished around 2 every day.
Now she is a teacher I do the majority of the chores, most of the time. She gets the kids up before she leaves, I make sure they are ready for school & college before I go to work. The kids ‘tidy up’ and put the washing away & dishes away before I get home. I then cook tea, clean the kitchen, play taxi driver and sort washing whilst she does her marking etc. Of a weekend she’ll help out a bit more but most of it is still done by me. Except for school holidays, when takes the lions share (still doesn’t iron though).
I still earn 30% more than her.
And as for couples who share chores having more sex…..

Jim Lawrie

2nd September 2019 at 9:25 pm

“better sex” they said. I suppose a woman would enjoy sex more if she is conscious during it rather than comatose from the exhaustion of all the housework.

I do all chores outdoors. Indoors I do the floors and wash the windows. I cook about once a week but that is because she regards me as a good cook and reckons that if I cooked all the time she would finish up as big as an elephant. She has forbidden the making of tablet because her capacity for self denial on that one is about the same as a crack addict offered a rock.

Amy Denton

27th September 2019 at 5:46 pm

I know what you mean. The last thing I want to do after working outside the home all day, then cooking dinner, doing dishes, sweeping and mopping up the kitchen, getting the kids to bed..and now it’s 11 pm is being asked for sex by a husband who sat there and watched me do it all. No thank you dear….I REALLY DO have a headache and am bone tired and am not willing to do ONE MORE THING for another person… I have to sleep so I can get up and do this again tomorrow. And on the weekends, I get to clean the entire house before I go back to work.. yippee

Danny Rees

2nd September 2019 at 1:16 pm

When will we see a study on homelessness and suicide amongst men?

Oh sorry that doesn’t fit in with the narrative that women are the oppressed gender in western rich countries.

Danny Rees

2nd September 2019 at 1:14 pm

Boo hoo women in third world countries die of disease and starvation and get stoned to death for adultery.

Spare us the first world tears.

Sylvia Sinclair

2nd September 2019 at 12:47 pm

I’m 71, my late husband was 78. He had done all his own ironing when he was in the RAF and you know it had to be pristine. He could do the washing up and washed the clothes, cooked, cleaned the house etc as he lived on his own before we got together. When we married, he bought a dishwasher so neither of us had to do the washing up and hired a window cleaner so neither of us had to wash windows. He often cooked our meals and would have ironed, washed clothes, cleaned the house etc if I had asked him to, however, as in my professional life, I always knew I could do things better, so I wouldn’t let him and, honestly, how much labour does it take to load a washing machine or walk a carpet sweeper around? Plenty of people would have said that my late husband was a male chauvinist from the way he spoke, (he grew up in that era for goodness sake) but I know better and I think too many people are too eager to judge. There’s not enough common sense around nowadays.

Jerry Owen

2nd September 2019 at 9:54 am

Women tend to be home makers, it’s in their genetic makeup.
My wife does far more in the house than I do, I’m not lazy it’s just that she is so much better then me at it, I don’t know how to use the washing machine for example. Men do far more DIY than women, I do all of ours, it all balances out in the end.

Amy Denton

27th September 2019 at 5:40 pm

i guess I missed out on that genetic part of the make up because I HATE housework. I work more than full time and the last thing I’m wanting to do is pick up after someone or clean the baseboards. I do housework because it is necessary but I HATE it. So, your statement that it is in our genetic makeup is wrong. Women have been EXPECTED to do it, we have been TAUGHT to do it growing up. We have been DOING IT and that is why we are GOOD AT IT. It is not because ALL of us like it. We are better at it than most men because men have not been EXPECTED TO DO IT, TAUGHT TO DO IT WHILE GROWING UP, OR BEEN DOING IT NOW. Women are better at it because we HAVE been doing it. Men are not as good because they have NOT been doing it. I still hate doing it, no matter what.

Claire D

11th October 2019 at 8:23 am

one personal opinion/anecdote does not a theory make. And I cannot help thinking that your opinion is heavily influenced by sheer mental and physical exhaustion, it sounds as if you’re having a really tough, demanding time. Is there no other option workwise for you and your partner ?

In Negative

2nd September 2019 at 9:39 am

“Who does the washing up in your house? You or your partner? And who looks after the kids?”

A bit early in the marriage cycle for this isn’t it Ella?

Stephen J

2nd September 2019 at 8:40 am

I reckon that any confusion about equality amongst the sexes is entirely understandable, since the two sexes can NEVER be equal, though recent generations are constantly being told that they can and are.

Of course, you can have equal pay for equal work, Emma’s words are no more or less valuable than Brendan’s for instance. But the sexes are incapable of equality, either biologically or practically.

The operative word should be “complimentary” the two coalesce and act as one sometimes, but mostly are taking different actions to achieve the similar goal.

Where the confusion has set in, is in the nature of the work that the two sexes perform, men are specialists and women are generalists. Where a woman will dabble in anything just to get the job done, a man is liable to make a much more professional result, but eschew all other activity until the effort is complete. Industrialisation has meant that there are far less (proportionately) specialist roles, many can be done by either sex perfectly well and are… So we find men in pinnies doing nursing, and ladies installing central heating systems.

Whilst the inner workings of the sexes look on and think… Gi’s a job mate… I can do that! The fact is, we can’t, we can only dabble in each other’s work.

In Negative

2nd September 2019 at 9:41 am

“Emma’s words are no more or less valuable than Brendan’s for instance.”

This was priceless!

June Jones

3rd September 2019 at 2:05 am

I agree. “Mick’s words are no more or less valuable that Virginia’s for instance; but Mick does no housework, does not cook or wash or iron and has been like this around their children who will know previsely their place in society, eh?”

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