[Guest Post] Cleaning the Glass Ceiling by Gaia Charis

Forget the phallus as the ultimate symbol of power in the ongoing struggle for sexgender equality…the toilet brush is where it’s at…along with every other cleansing agent in the domestic arsenal. Quotas in the boardroom? We need them in the bathroom. And if you think this sounds frivolous then think again…the dynamics of the domestic reveal some uncomfortably murky truths about gendered power, and how it is maintained.

Zoe Williams, writing in the Guardian, says…

‘Considering the huge advances made by women in the workplace, perhaps not with boardroom representation but certainly with equal pay, it is astounding that so little progress has been made domestically. The British Household Panel Survey looked at 5,000 families over 15 years and found that single men do four hours of housework a week, while single women do seven hours. But married and cohabiting women do twelve hours and men suddenly do 40 minutes. This is not just about women having higher standards…it is about a resolute failure to import principles of equality into the home.’

Nick Pearce, director of the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research echoes this viewpoint…

‘The revolution in gender roles is unfinished business. Women still shoulder the overwhelming burden of household tasks, particularly after they have had children.’

During the last few years I’ve been talking to both men and women about various aspects of gendered dynamics for a forthcoming book and housework has often been high on the list of sites of conflict. This is not a new phenomenon. As part of ongoing longitudinal research I’ve looked specifically at the dynamics of domestic labour on two previous occasions over three decades and both the conflict and the dynamics that underlie it remain remarkably constant, a factor that is supported by Tracy McVeigh in her recent article ‘Forty Years of Feminism – but women still do most of the housework’. Whilst conflict itself is never desirable I would argue that it is the insidious nature of those underlying dynamics that is most concerning.

Before we look at what’s causing the dust-up let’s acknowledge that there are men who do their fair share and more. They are, however, a rare breed with just one in ten men recorded as doing an equal amount of cleaning and washing within the home. And let’s also acknowledge that domestic slobbery is not confined to the male of the species. But the overwhelming reality is that for most cohabiting heterosexual couples, and especially those with children, in-house equality is a war of domestic attrition fought with disingenuous tactics, and it’s one that women invariably lose. Worse still is the fact that it’s an issue that is hard for women to personally confront as to do so calls the whole concept of a caring and sharing partnership into question. It’s a dilemma that endures, as the accounts of women over three decades illustrate.

In the early 1980s I talked to women working within the field of education about their experiences of domestic equality. Three key elements emerged…

Firstly, what their partners espoused as desirable in principle (which was fairness and equality ). Secondly, what actually occurred in practice ( they didn’t ) and thirdly, how the yawning chasm between the two was justified and resolved.

A decade later I recorded the experiences of a group of women who were drawn from a variety of professions and who were all studying part-time for higher degrees, and a variety of working women have contributed their views in recent years.

A consistent pattern emerges  over time where a small number of male partners have genuinely and happily undertaken their fair share of all domestic work but where, for the majority, there has been a huge dysjunct between what their partners agree should happen and what actually does. The gap between the two frequently leads to constant and often very corrosive conflict.

Put bluntly the problem lies in many men agreeing that they should do their bit but resolutely either failing to do so or cherry-picking the less disagreeable aspects of the domestic to make up their quota.

Talking to men about their side of this also reveals some consistent and really quite entertaining patterns (although it must be noted that their partners don’t find them so). Firstly, there appears to be an extraordinary preponderance of men who suffer from ‘domislexia’, a condition which renders them unable to either ‘see’ housework or to perceive its underlying organisational structures and methods. And secondly, there is the oft-quoted issue of ‘standards’ whereby male partners claim that women’s domestic standards are unnecessarily and, for them, unreasonably and unattainably high.

The majority of women that I spoke to over time were both well-educated and professional and so tended to have partners of similar status. This factor makes the first issue of ‘domislexia’ particularly interesting as most of the men who cited this difficulty were themselves employed in fields that were characterised by organisational and analytical structures. Their professional status and success were thus entirely founded upon their own organisational and perceptual abilities. It does consequently test the boundaries of credulity when male managers in the hospitality industry don’t ‘see’ what needs doing in their own homes and male doctoral researchers don’t ‘get’ housework (their words not mine).

The issue of standards is similarly clarified by that which is expected of the paid domestic (usually a woman) who is often employed to resolve the conflict generated by unequal domestic contribution. Whilst many men claim that their partners’ domestic standards are unnecessarily exacting and that their own may be much lower, but are at a level that they are personally comfortable with, it’s not a view that transfers to the hired help who’s expected to do a decent job (ie to a ‘female’ standard of cleanliness). Which is, after all, what they’re paid for, as no domislexic man wants to be forking out good money for housework done at a level that he might do it at himself.

So let’s rewind here to Zoe Williams’ reference to cohabiting women’s domestic input rocketing to a whopping 12 hours whilst that of their male partners drops to just 40 minutes per week. Given the well-researched role that this discrepancy plays in subsequent  conflict and divorce it’s clearly not what women either expect or sign up for and it does tell us a lot about the dynamics of gendered power at the most basic level of the personal. More importantly it tells us a great deal about women’s struggles in achieving a greater presence within the higher echelons of public and economic life. If they are facing this level of sabotage at the bottom how much worse does it get on the way to the top?

Zoe Williams refers to the army of poorly paid domestics who pick up the slack of gendered slacking as those to whom we have ‘commissioned out the conflict’. Ironic, if the only women up there on the far side of the Glass Ceiling are those who are being paid to clean it.

Gaia Charis. 04/12     www.gaiacharis.com

‘A Cleaner Conscience: the politics of domestic labour.’ Zoe Williams, Guardian UK,10/ 03/12

‘Forty years of feminism-but still women do most of the housework.’ Tracy McVeigh, Guardian UK, 10/03/12

See also…

Carey, Anna. ‘Great strides made towards gender equality but playing field is still not level.’ Irish Times, 1/02/12

Erickson, S ( et al ) ‘Business in Society’. Polity Press, 2009.

The Equality Authority of Ireland/ ESRI. ‘ Gender Inequalities in Time Use-The Distribution of Caring, Housework and Employment among Women and Men in Ireland.’ 19/06/08

Featherstone, Brid. ‘Contemporary Fathering : theory, policy and practice’. Policy Press, 2009.

Wikigender.org ‘Household chores : cause of divorce.’ 01/09 

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