By Katrina Gajevska.
Statistics show that gender equality has not progressed across all areas of life. With considerably more women at university and in employment these days, housework and childrearing still conform to the pre-emancipation patterns. In 2004, University of Ulster research showed women did 17 hours of housework per week compared to 6 done by men, excluding childcare. In 2006, a study at the University of Oxford showed domestic work still fell disproportionately on women and in 2012, almost half of women did 13 hours of housework per week or more according to The Guardian. Men, on the other hand, were only occasionally involved.
Childcare affects a woman’s economic independence even more dramatically. Whilst fathers’ professional lives remain largely unshaken, working mothers either reduce their employment, drop it altogether or run two jobs at a time. For those who take the third option, decreased activity at work, inability to put in additional hours and less time for networking ultimately lead to loss of experience and lower income. Some women additionally face the threat of redundancy or marginalisation, as employers, fully aware of their family commitments, are reluctant to retain or promote them. This exacerbates the pay gap and few women are able to reach for top positions. According to a leading female architect Zaha Hadid, ‘‘Society has not been set up in a way that allows women to go back to work after taking time off. Many women now have to work as well as do everything at home and no one can do everything“.
The reasons for domestic inequality are often claimed to be pragmatic rather than ideological. First, given that men usually earn more, it seems rational for them to retain full-time employment. Second, it is often remarked that women simply enjoy domestic work more and are better at it. If so, why not stick with it?
The first consideration is largely self-fulfilling: women earn less in part because they are assumed to contribute less efficiently due to their family roles. However, other factors also contribute to disparities in earning power. Most industries (with a few exceptions) are still dominated by men at higher levels; women face gender prejudice and a glass ceiling and are less encouraged in their careers than men. Thus the set of factors which cause one pay gap perpetuates another.
Although the myth of male incompetence at housework was dispelled a long time ago, many still think women naturally prefer domesticity. Yet a great deal of female attitudes to housework can be well explained by gender ideology and adaptive preferences: the practice of conforming one’s beliefs and desires to social expectations as a result of conditioning. An equally important explaining factor is the natural desire to minimise cognitive dissonance, i.e. the tendency to eliminate conflicting desires (in this case, that of living in an equitable relationship) in order to accept situations which cannot be changed. Upbringing and lack of alternatives can therefore account for women’s behaviour.
Much can be done to equalise domestic arrangements, but we must be aware of two traps policy makers and campaigners commonly fall into. First, even those policies designed to help women gain more independence ultimately assume that they are primarily responsible for domestic work. Note that the ‘flexible employment’ policies work on the assumption that women should be able to combine earning some income with housework – rather than that it should be equally shared so that wives can pursue full-time employment. Second, the popular rhetoric of men helping in household chores also misses the point. To say that men should ‘help’ at home obviously implies assistance, rather than co-responsibility. It implicitly concedes that women are the primary domestic workers who need a bit of relief – and that this ‘extra’ help exhausts men’s roles at home.
What we need is to shift the target of family policies to both sexes. The state should not encourage women to take flexible working arrangements if it does not encourage men to do the same. Paternity leave should be extended to 9 months (as with women) and companies should be actively encouraged to facilitate flexible work for men. Evidently, much of the change required is cultural. However, we should not be afraid to use the state apparatus to shape people’s mentalities. We have been doing it for thousands of years already.
Katrina Gajevska is a Young Fabians Member.