What stopped housework and watched as responsibilities shifted

I stopped housework for 6 months but the changed standards and responsibilities may stay forever

Dr Niki Vincent

If you live with others and are responsible for the majority of the housework, what happens to the household dynamics if an injury or something else suddenly prevents you from doing it? Commissioner for Gender Equality in the Victorian Public Sector, Dr Niki Vincent, found out.

To some people the surgeon’s orders may have sounded like a gift: “Niki, you are not allowed to vacuum, wash floors, or hang washing out for six months – and don’t even think about bending down to pick things from the floor for at least three months.’’ 

But I confess I’m highly organised around housework – and big on hygiene, and cleanliness in general. Some would be unkind enough to call me a germaphobe. Sure, I was obsessed with hand sanitizer before COVID made it a mandatory handbag item, but I would say I was simply ahead of the curve. 

Bottom line: Living in a less-than-spotless house has never been an option for me, even after serious spinal surgery. 

My partner Chuck was initially unfazed by the idea of picking up the extra workload around the house (how hard could it be, right?). However, I saw it as a chance for a social experiment that would reveal the hidden depths of the unequal gender-based distribution of unpaid labour in our home – a situation that many women reading this will understand all too well. 

Of course, it’s not just physically doing the work, but the mental work – the planning and scheduling around what needs to be done and when – that takes a lot of time too. 

Chuck has been wonderfully caring and supportive while I’ve been unwell, and he’s been enthusiastic to understand how to undertake the housework without any lowering of (my) standards. But he’s also admitted that it’s been quite the rude shock – even for a man who describes himself as a “feminist-in-training”. He now understands that I do way more than he’s ever realised to keep things running smoothly, tidily, and hygienically in our home. And while his attention to detail is great when working on a bicycle or writing music, it’s previously been less so when it comes to cleaning.  

As the graduate of an elite boy’s college and a former editor of Playboy Magazine, Chuck’s been proactively undertaking a bit of voluntary re-education over the years. He now appreciates that he’s unconsciously been a product of the patriarchy factory in which housework was considered “women’s work”. 

He wasn’t alone. Data continues to show that women are responsible for the majority of unpaid work in the home. The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that even when women were the main breadwinner in a household, they did more overall work, spending over 80 hours combined on paid and unpaid work each week.  

Before I went in for the surgery, I bought a copy of the Fair Play card deck, which helps couples divide up unpaid domestic work without making assumptions based on gender. OK, so subtlety is not one of my strong points! 

Research tells us that a person’s gender may cause them to “see” housework differently and women are disproportionately thought to be more responsible for housework than men.  

Studies also confirm what many of us thought already – that we believe women are cleaner than men, so therefore have higher cleanliness expectations for women than for men. That means if you are asked to rate the cleanliness of a home, you may give it a higher rating if it is occupied by a man than a woman because it is being compared against relatively low expectations for men. We’ve all heard the comment: “It’s clean, for a man’s place”. More specifically, women with relatively tidy homes are often judged as less clean – and even less moral – than men with equally tidy homes!  

While this little social experiment at my house has been eye-opening for my partner, I have to admit that it’s also felt like quite a weight of unconscious social expectation anxiety has been lifted off my shoulders. This was a burden I hadn’t fully appreciated until now – and it’s also made it less challenging for me to lower my standards now that I’m not responsible for the work.  

Could this be a permanent shift in the housework standards and responsibilities for us? 

Maybe. 

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