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Housework myths: 'Men don't see mess'

Father and son playing
Credit: iStock.com/Geber86

It’s long been thought that women end up doing the majority of the housework because men simply “don’t see the mess”.

But a study led by Dr Leah Ruppanner, Associate Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of The Policy Lab at the University of Melbourne, has managed to debunk that popular myth.

The study, Good Housekeeping, Great Expectations: Gender and Housework Norms investigated the idea that gender remains a key predictor of housework in modern society.

Dr Ruppanner believed previous studies on the topic had been quite limited and so she and her team decided to take a unique approach.

They had a group view and evaluate photos of a relatively clean or messy room, which was supposedly occupied by either a man or a woman.

Then, they were asked to judge those rooms – and the results went a long way to debunk the myth that “men don’t see mess.”

“One thing that comes up when we talk anecdotally is, ‘My husband just can’t see the mess. He can walk into a room and not see any mess. There can be dirt and stuff everywhere and he just doesn’t see it!’ So we decided to investigate and see whether this myth has any truth to it,” Dr Ruppanner says.

“What we did was randomly assign people two different rooms. One was messy, the other was clean. Then we manipulated the gender of the room – for some people the messy room belonged to ‘Jennifer’ and, for others, the messy room belonged to ‘James’. People didn’t see the same two rooms, they were just randomly assigned to a room.”

The question Dr Ruppanner was interested in was, ‘If men can actually not see the mess, as they claim, then you’d consider that if they saw a messy room, they’d just rate it as being clean.’

“But we did not find that! What we found was that men and women, when they looked at the messy room, they rated it as equally messy. When they looked at the room that was clean, they rated it as equally clean. So, the idea that men and women can see the same messy room and see it differently – we now have evidence showing that is wrong.”

What we found was that men and women, when they looked at the messy room, they rated it as equally messy. When they looked at the room that was clean, they rated it as equally clean. So, the idea that men and women can see the same messy room and see it differently – we now have evidence showing that is wrong.
Dr Leah Ruppanner

While the latest data shows that men are spending more time doing household chores than they used to, it’s still the women who are landed with the majority of the domestic work.

The Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey was carried out by Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic & Social Research. It found women do most of the housework, regardless of who the breadwinner is. Mothers who are the bread-winners spend four more hours doing housework per week than bread-winning fathers.

Dr Ruppanner’s Good Housekeeping, Great Expectations: Gender and Housework Norms study also set out to look at social expectations when it came to women and housework.

“Women are more likely to be expected to have a tidy home, which means there is usually more pressure on women, so we wanted to look closely at that.  We also asked the question, ‘If Jennifer’s boss dropped in unexpectedly, or if her relatives dropped in unexpectedly, how would they rate her as a person?’.

“We found that, even when they were looking at the clean room, people are anticipating that ‘Jennifer’ is going to be punished for having that messy room. So as people drop in, they’re not just going to rate her as a messy person, they’ll actually rate her as less of a person because of the mess. It’s everything every woman feels, but now we have scientific evidence.”

When it comes to women and housework, the study showed multiple explanations about why women tend to carry the load when it comes to domestic chores.

“One explanation is that women just have higher standards of cleanliness. That may be true but what we’re showing is that they have higher standards and they want their rooms to be cleaner because they fear that people will judge them more harshly,” Dr Ruppanner says.

“And when women are judged, they’re not just judged along the lines of being told, ‘Oh, your house is messy!’  but they’ll also be seen as being less competent people. And if women are already disadvantaged in the work place and already do more housework than men, and make less money – they can’t afford to have one less thing to be seen as less capable of.”

This brings us to what Dr Ruppanner calls the “multi-tasking urban myth".

A recent study, Putting a stereotype to the test: The case of gender differences in multitasking costs in task-switching and dual-task situations published in PLOS One, shows women are actually no better at multitasking than men.

The study tested whether women were better at switching between tasks and juggling multiple tasks at the same time. The results proved that women's brains are no more efficient at either of these activities than men's.

 “German researchers compared the abilities of 48 men and 48 women in how well they identified letters and numbers. In some experiments, participants were required to pay attention to two tasks at once, called concurrent multitasking, while in others they needed to switch attention between tasks called sequential multitasking,” Dr Ruppannar says.

“The researchers measured reaction time and accuracy for the multitasking experiments against a control condition, performing one task only. They found multitasking substantially affected the speed and accuracy of completing the tasks for both men and women. There was no difference between the groups.”

Dr Ruppannar believes women are faced with a vicious cycle. They are already juggling families and work – but in modern society there’s an additional, often unrealistic expectation for them to also keep a perfect house. And, when it comes to an “unclean house” men can often dismiss a woman’s concern.

 “A man might ask, ‘Why are you worrying about the house?’ So if the house is messy, the woman might be feeling anxious about the mess and sometimes men can say, ‘It’s not important, just leave the mess! What difference does it make?’,” Dr Ruppanner says.

“But what we see if women feel anxious about a messy house is it’s because they know there are going to be consequences. And they’re being punished. They know that people will see them as less competent as a human because my house is messy. But they won’t see if my husband’s house is messy.”