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It’s been almost 30 years since sociologist Arlie Hochschild wrote The Second Shift, a landmark study demonstrating that while women had made great strides in the workplace, they weren’t kicking back with a glass of wine and watching TV when they got home from the office.
Instead, they faced an exhausting second round of labor involving unpaid cooking, cleaning, and child care. In the years since the book’s publication, there’s been no shortage of studies confirming the continued disparity between American men and women where housework is concerned, even as men take on more of the cooking and playground duty. You’ve come a long way, baby, but you’re still doing most of the vacuuming.
Theories abound as to why this remains the case. Perhaps we were raised in homes where domestic tasks fell to the females, or we’ve internalized the countless cultural messages signaling that housework is women’s work, or we recognize that women will be judged more harshly than men for living like pigs.
When I look at my own compulsion to keep my house clean despite the forces (i.e., my husband and children) conspiring against me, its source seems simple: I just can’t stand clutter and chaos. If anecdotal evidence and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual American time use surveys are to be believed, more women than men feel as I do.
Author Laura Vanderkam agrees that the impulse to clean often comes down to a personal preference. For her 2015 book, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, she examined the daily routines of women who earn six-figure salaries and also have children at home.
Overall, these alpha women did less housework and more paid work than the average American woman. Within her sample, though, when it came to how much time they were devoting to housework, Vanderkam found a wide range--between two and 25 hours per week.
“The housework thing is entirely a personality matter,” she told me in an interview. “I think it’s a matter of trying to figure out how you can work with the personality you have without spending your whole life cleaning. The time you spend cleaning is time that you’re not earning a living, time you’re not spending with your kids, so it better be worth it.”
Vanderkam’s advice? Let it go. “I don’t have a problem with mess,” she said nonchalantly. A 2013 New York Times opinion piece by novelist Stephen Marche titled “The Case for Filth” expressed a similar sentiment. “The solution to the gender divide in housework,” he declared (conveniently, some might say), is “don’t bother.”
I suspect that advice would bring on a panic attack in my friend Zoe, a full-time lawyer with two young children and a preternaturally clean house. (“My friend once commented that my house looks like no one lives there—and I took that as total compliment,” she told me.)
She agrees that the impulse to clean is a personality issue; she is the type who gets “irritated by mess” and as a result devotes a lot of time to eradicating it. Even so, her cleaning mania wouldn’t be possible if she hadn’t managed to transform her husband into a neatnik, too. He does half of the housework and child care, and, she said, “I would really need to cool my jets about this stuff if I were going it alone.”
Perhaps we all need to cool our jets, or, if you live with a man, work on enlisting him to do his equal share, as Zoe did. Each alternative has its challenges, but the truth is that when women are associated with housework, the implications reach not just into the laundry room but into the conference room as well.
In 2015, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton business school professor Adam Grant co-wrote an article decrying the fact that women continue to be stuck doing “office housework” regardless of their levels of seniority. “Someone has to take notes, serve on committees and plan meetings,” they observed, “and just as happens with housework at home, that someone is usually a woman.”
Zoe has witnessed a more literal version of “office housework”: upon her recent promotion, the extremely slobby man she took over for left the female office managers to clear out the ample clutter and clean up the grime in his office before Zoe moved in. More tellingly, she suspects that the man she replaced had lax standards in areas beyond office cleanliness--just as her impatience with disorder applies both to the state of her living room and the performance of her staff.
She’s noticed pushback as she brings her high standards to her new position and junior staffers grumble that their former boss “never did/asked/expected that.”
These are tricky waters to navigate. (It’s conceivable, after all, that the pushback comes not only from the high standards but from the fact that a woman is the one imposing them.) Still, it’s hard to argue with Vanderkam’s finding that high earners do less weekly housework than American women overall. She speculates that these women “may have more time and energy for their big jobs precisely because they aren't spending as much time dealing with housework.”
Also revealing: those who devoted the most hours to housework reported feeling more stressed out than the rest of the sample. “Humans need downtime,” Vanderkam reasoned, “so it makes sense that people who were filling what could be leisure time with housework would feel more stressed at work, too.” Sounds like kicking back after work might have unexpected benefits, even if a cleaner house isn’t one of them.
Barbara Spindel is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, Slate, the Daily Beast, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.
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