May 29, 2019

Why Do Boys Get A Pass When It Comes To Household Chores? The Same Reasons Men Do

By Mark Gunnery

Boy doing chores

Boy doing chores

Boys and girls use their time very differently. That’s according to a recent report showing that girls between the ages of 15 and 17 are spending nearly twice the amount of daily time cleaning, cooking, and running errands as similarly aged boys. Boys, on the other hand, have an hour more leisure and screen time than girls.

On today’s Kojo Nnamdi Show we explored why the gender gap persists and heard about what parents, teachers, and kids can do to encourage people to think more equitably about gender and work.

The trend of boys doing fewer chores than girls mirrors an adult one, where men in heterosexual relationships with women do less housework on average than their partners. Gary Barker is CEO of Promundo, an organization that works for gender justice and against violence. He notes that, once unpaid domestic work is accounted for, men work on average 30 to 60 less minutes a day than women. “We get two weeks of free Netflix watching time every year because of the extra care work that women do,” he said. Parents model that dynamic to their children, he said, continuing the cycle of gender inequity.

This socialization, though, starts long before the teenage years, according to sex educator and author Deborah Roffman. “Most of what we communicate with our children and other people about gender is unconscious,” she said. Roffman pointed out that newborn boys and girls are held differently, spoken to differently, and played with differently, even if parents are trying to raise them in gender-neutral ways.

None of this is new, according to Kate Haulman. She teaches history at at American University and co-curated an exhibit on the history of women’s unpaid domestic labor in the U.S. called “All Work, No Pay,” currently on view at Smithsonian National Museum of American History. “This dynamic goes back a couple of hundred years,” she said. Women and girls’ domestic work is mostly invisible, she said, and “has endured despite women’s gains in the paid workforce.”

One way that this dynamic passes down from parents to children, according to Barker, is through lowered expectations of men and boys. Women and girls, he said, are taught that they are natural caretakers, whereas men and boys are taught that they are not. “It’s easy for us to fall into learned incompetence,” Barker said. “If I sit back and a woman changes the diaper of my newborn daughter, it’s easy for me to say ‘I don’t know how to do that, it’s messy anyway, and I don’t want to.’” This has negative effects on people of all genders, including boys and men, who are taught that fathers are “deficit parents,” unable to fully care for people in the way mothers can.

Greta, a listener in Stafford, Virginia, called in to share her experience of living with men in college who didn’t know how to do laundry or wash dishes, relying on Greta to do household chores. “It was just appalling,” she said. “Gender norms aside, it should not affect how somebody’s able to function on their own as an adult.”

This might not be surprising to many of us, but what can be done? There are ways parents can push back against gender disparities in housework. A start, according to Haulman, is “treating children and adults as humans with a range of abilities and interests rather than just immediately as gendered beings.”

For Roffman, it comes down to more critical thinking about gender roles. She says the focus should be on raising the “right kind of human” rather than the right kind of boy or girl. “If we can emphasize and name–regardless of our children’s gender–values like empathy and accountability and respect,” she said, then people can start to challenge harmful gender messages that young people are exposed to every day.

“We have to shift the sense that men don’t want to do this stuff,” Barker says of domestic labor. He points out that most of the men and boys he’s surveyed want to be more involved in caretaking and housework but are worried about how other men and boys will perceive them. “We have to recognize that boys and men have the capacity to be caring and thoughtful,” he said. “Men can do this, and we need men to do this.”