Philosophers have a theory about men and household chores

 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

There are crumbs all over the counter. The electric stove top is spattered with oil from cooking last night’s dinner. The bins needs taking out. The limescale around the sink is starting to build up again. The cat’s food station is starting to look like he eats off the floor instead of a bowl.

While I’m surveying the scene in the kitchen, I’m also making a mental note that we need to buy more onions and garlic, use up the kale and spinach before it wilts into mush, order more Brita filters, and replenish the cat food. While I’m making those mental notes, I’m already planning when I can go to the shops to pick things up and working out how much of a dent in our budget those filters are going to make.

“The kitchen needs cleaning,” I tell my lovely, sensitive, hard-working husband. He looks up from his PlayStation. “Does it?” he asks, genuinely. I stare at him, unable to believe he can’t see what I see. Am I the mad one? Or is he? At times, it’s the same with other areas of the house – he can’t seem to see that the floor needs sweeping or that the toilet needs bleaching. It’s as though he has some sort of film over his eyes that renders him magically unable to see all the filth that I’m thinking about almost constantly.

It’s not that he doesn’t lift a finger. But this phenomenon of not being able to see things that need doing – and only doing them after I ask him to – is not unique to my husband. It’s well-known that, among heterosexual couples at least, women bear the brunt of domestic work in the home. A 2020 Grazia survey found that 73 per cent of women who live with a partner felt they did more “invisible labour” at home than their partner. Fifty-five per cent of them felt that such imbalance has a negative impact on their mental health.

Philosophers have tried to come up with an answer for why men seem to be so undiscerning. They call it “affordance theory”, in which an affordance is defined as a “possibility of action”. Writing in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, academics from Cambridge University suggested that people’s perception of affordance in a domestic environment is gendered, with women more likely to see an action being invited, or afforded, than men.

Professor Paulina Sliwa, who worked at Cambridge University’s philosophy faculty before moving to the University of Vienna, explained: “This is not just looking at the shape and size of a tree and then surmising you can climb it, but actually seeing a particular tree as climbable, or seeing a cup as drink-from-able. Neuroscience has shown that perceiving an affordance can trigger neural processes preparing you for physical action. This can range from a slight urge to overwhelming compulsion, but it often takes mental effort not to act on an affordance.

“Affordances pull on your attention. Tasks may irritate the perceiver until done, or distract them from other plans. If resisted, it can create a felt tension. This puts women in a catch-22 situation, either inequality of labour or inequality of cognitive load.”

It means that, when I look at a dirty stove top, my thoughts immediately go towards how it can be cleaned, and then I feel the need to complete the task. But when my husband looks at a dirty stove top, his thought stops there.

Men should be more aware of domestic tasks that need doing to have a more equal home, academics say (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Men should be more aware of domestic tasks that need doing to have a more equal home, academics say (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

According to the British Medical Journal, women all around the world take on three times more care and domestic work than men. During the pandemic, despite the fact that everyone spent more time at home due to lockdowns, the “increase and intensity of [care and domestic] work has been far greater for women”. Because of how gendered domestic work is, women and girls often find themselves struggling to carry most of this invisible labour, on top of full-time work or school. According to academics from Cambridge University, the “gendered affordance perception hypothesis” is not about absolving men of their slack in the home, and sensitivity to domestic affordances in women should not be equated with a natural affinity for housework.

Dr Tom McClelland, from the university’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science, said: “Men should be encouraged to resist gendered norms by improving their sensitivity to domestic task affordances. A man might adopt a resolution to sweep for crumbs every time he waits for the kettle to boil, for example. Not only would this help them to do the tasks they don’t see, it would gradually retrain their perception so they start to see the affordance in the future.”

In essence, men simply have no excuses not to take on their equal share of invisible labour. If more men resolved to think about what they’re seeing in the home, rather than seeing and simply looking away, we could have more equitable domestic lives, more balanced relationships, happier women, and better times for everyone.

Now, to print off this study and leave it somewhere my husband will see...