Delusions of Gender: the domestic sphere

[This is the 4th of a series of posts discussing the book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine]

“The managers who don’t get the promotions or salaries they deserve, the saleswomen and investment bankers who determinedly network at topless bars and lap-dancing clubs, and the corporate scientists who endure locker-room culture deserve proper acknowledgement of barriers that still have not fallen. And this includes barriers at home.”

Cordelia Fine discusses interesting statistics around the relative amounts of housework done by men and women in domestic partnerships. Apparently, the more a woman earns, the less housework she tends to do, but only up to the point where she earns a comparable amount to her partner (and even then it’s not quite equal). For women that earn more than their partners, the situation is strangely reversed: the more they earn, the more housework they do on average.

I’m sure there could be lots of reasons for this curious reversal, but one phenomenon highlighted in the book is what sociologists call “gender deviance neutralisation” – the desire to counteract the discomfort caused by the reversal of the traditional man-as-breadwinner model, by acting extra-womanly at home (or perhaps in the case of the men, asserting their masculinity by avoiding laundry and cleaning). It’s certainly interesting that the relationship between women’s earnings, their partners’ earnings and everyone’s apparent housework drive seems so complex.

It’s no revelation that women do more housework – and, especially, childcare – than men. Women are traditionally associated with being responsible for the housework and childcare, and our eagerness to express our gender identity – through the language of gender we’ve learnt from our culture – helps to perpetuate this.

Equality is, as usual, made even harder by the gendered assumptions that are made around who does what:

“While there are entire chapters – books, even – devoted to the issues of being a working mother, rare indeed is it to come across even a paragraph in a child-rearing manual that addresses the conflicts of time and responsibility that arise from being a working father. This social norm puts women in a weak negotiating position.”

I have to mention another book here, on parenthood – “All Joy and No Fun”, by Jennifer Senior – that makes a very interesting point around cultural expectations of women (in America, but relevant also to the UK). Culture has shifted over time: in the 1950s, women who didn’t work outside the home called themselves housewives; nowadays, they are usually called stay-at-home mums. The difference seems superficial but it actually reflects quite a big shift – while in the past the main expectation on women was keeping an immaculate and tidy house, now it’s on being the “perfect” mother.

Mothers now apparently spend much more time with their children than they ever did, and often deny themselves the free time to themselves that fathers seem to be able to carve out with no guilt. Anyone who thinks this is some kind of innate, inevitable motherly instinct has only to look back a few decades, or indeed to other, perhaps more healthy cultures, to find evidence that this is not the case.

Going back to Cordelia Fine’s book, it seems men can show “maternal” behaviour and feelings just as women can:

“In her study of equal sharers – that is, mothers and fathers who equally share the responsibilities and pleasures of homelife – Francine Deutsch found that equally sharing fathers had developed the kind of closeness to their children we normally associate with mothers.”

It’s not obvious from this statement whether those fathers were closer to their children as a result of practising “equal sharing”, or whether they were just naturally inclined towards both equal sharing and close relationships with their children. But if rats are anything to go by, it’s very possible that it’s the former:

“Male rats don’t experience the hormonal changes that trigger maternal behaviour in female rats. They never normally participate in infant care. Yet put a baby rat in a cage with a male adult and after a few days he will be caring for the baby almost as if he were its mother. He’ll pick it up, nestle it close to him as a nursing female would, keep the baby rat clean and comforted and even build a comfy nest for it. The parenting circuits are there in the male brain, even in a species in which paternal care doesn’t normally exist. If a male rat, without even the aid of a William Sears baby-care manual, can be inspired to parent then I would suggest that the prospects for human fathers are pretty good.”

I’ve also read that taking a couple of months of paternity leave predicts greater continued parental involvement for many years to come. Fathers who spend a period of time being the primary caregiver can form a strong bond with their babies in that time just as mothers can. Which, really, does not surprise me when I think about it. Flexibility in this regard has to have been an evolutionary advantage. Yet it’s cultural barriers that stop us utilising this biological flexibility. In Sweden, it was not until equal sharing of parental leave was incentivised that it actually started to happen routinely – but the effects have been positive.

Jennifer Senior observes stylistic differences between mothers and fathers when “on duty” at home, and concludes that women with male partners (assuming the partners do play an active part at home) would do well to take a leaf out of their partners’ books: be less perfectionistic, for example, and look after themselves a bit more. This is an interesting challenge.

It does seem reasonable to me that just as we want work environments to change with the shifting gender balance and not merely assimilate women into a masculine culture, the same principle must apply to home environments. If we want the men in science, and economics, and executive management, and so on, to be open to the possibility that women could bring something different but of equal value to these roles – to temper and rebalance ‘yang’ cultures that are out of control – perhaps it’s equally true that the ‘yin’ in the domestic sphere has become problematic and could benefit from a rebalancing.

These are huge challenges, I guess. They involve changing habits of a lifetime; overcoming the internal discomfort of acting in ways that don’t “fit” with internalised cultural notions related to your self-identified gender; and dealing with the guilt that is piled onto mothers who don’t sacrifice their whole selves for their children. Equality has a long way to go.

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