Women do more housework than men when they share a home, and this division is an important source of unfairness that needs to be eliminated. But there is an interesting debate over just how to eliminate it. I have argued that male and female partners often have different levels of cleanliness, and rather than assume the higher level of cleanliness is correct, couples should instead meet in the middle. This case came under withering criticism when I made it. “Eventually a man pops in and says that it’s women’s fault for having too-high standards, an argument that starts with the gender essentialist assumption that all women’s standards are high and all men’s are low,” objected Amanda Marcotte. Jessica Valenti likewise insists that society not “let men get away with saying that they just ‘don’t care’ about filth.”
But is it a “gender essentialist assumption” that women have higher standards of cleanliness than men? Are men merely using this excuse to force their female partners to serve as maids?
The answer turns out to be no. Via Christopher Ingraham, a new study by University of Maryland sociology professor Liana Sayer finds that men do indeed prefer, on average, to do much less cleaning. “In 2012,” she reports, “single women with no children reported doing almost twice as much cooking, cleaning, and laundry as single men with no children.”
There are all kinds of levels of cleanliness and neatness. Above certain basic hygienic standards, there’s no wrong or right level. The best answer, as with most relationship issues, is to find common ground somewhere in the middle.
Update: Marcotte responds in the Los Angeles Times. There are two major problems with her response. The first is that she accuses me of making a point I did not make and do not agree with. The second is that she completely ignores the point I did make.
Here is Marcotte’s inaccurate description of my argument: “Of course, not everyone agrees that sexist forces are to blame for women’s disproportionate responsibilities at home. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine, for instance, argued last week that women clean more simply because they have higher standards.”
1. I never wrote that, which explains why she does not produce a quote to that effect. Indeed, I agree that sexist forces are to blame for the imbalance of housework. (Read the first sentence of this piece, above.) But I think a second question that exists in addition to that factor is the different levels of expectations of household tidiness between men and women. Marcotte argues as if there is only one possible explanation for the problem, and thus to argue for the existence of a second cause is to deny the first.
2. In her previous exchange with me, Marcotte decried the assumption that men have lower cleanliness standards as false (“gender essentialist.”) The study I describe above shows that she is wrong. Her reply does not grapple with the evidence. “Chait zeroed in on a study showing that single men do less housework than single women — and ignored all the research confirming that gender expectations within relationships affect the domestic division of labor.” Again, I do not deny the research showing that gender expectations affect the domestic division of labor. I am in full agreement with that research and its social implications.
But what about the clear fact that Marcotte was wrong about the differing levels of tidiness between men and women? Marcotte replies, “Anyway, who’s to say that the single men in that one study were satisfied with their surroundings? Maybe they were miserable.” Maybe they were, but this isn’t the point. The point is that, rightly or wrongly, they consider lower tidiness for higher leisure time a good trade. Whether they are actually making the right decision is irrelevant.
It would be interesting to explore the question of whether the different levels of preferred tidiness between men and women are explained by the fact that men are stupid. Perhaps so. In the meantime, the research cited above appears to have settled the actual disagreement between Marcotte and me.