Can Better Policies Make Men Share the Housework?

A PSA/ad for Indian detergent Ariel Matic
A PSA/ad for Indian detergent Ariel Matic Photo: Ariel/YouTube

“My little baby girl, you’re all grown-up now,” says an older man in an Indian ad for laundry detergent that made the rounds online this week. “You used to play house,” he continues, “and now you manage your own house. And your office. I am so proud. And I am so sorry. Sorry that you have to do all this alone.”

This is not a tragic tale of her husband dying young. We can see him right there in the ad — he’s chilling on the sofa with his laptop. Meanwhile, she makes him tea, takes a work call, and tends to their son at the same time. The spot ends with her apologetic father heading home to his own wife and the two of them loading the washing machine together. The campaign is hashtagged #ShareTheLoad — a task that is probably much easier for men of retirement age who are untroubled by messy kids or demanding day jobs.

We’re meant to feel good, though. After all, here’s a man acknowledging his role in gender inequality on a personal level. On a global level, though, it’s not clear how to set things right when it comes to the unequal breakdown of domestic labor. Does it require big, systemic policy changes to better value women’s time? Or is it something that must be fixed by apologetic grandfathers and woke dads?

Around the world, women and girls collectively spend billions more hours than men and boys on unpaid labor at home. This household inequity is the subject of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual letter, released last week. In it, the billionaire couple explain that “Unpaid work is what it says it is: It’s work, not play, and you don’t get any money for doing it.” So naturally, even in economically developed countries like the United States, the people who tend to do it are women. Whether they want to or not.

The annual letter offers a plan by which the foundation hopes to change the domestic circumstances, not just for Über-wealthy women like Melinda Gates and relatively wealthy women like me, but for women around the world who spend hours of their day carrying water and building fires and scrubbing clothes by hand. “The world is making progress by doing three things,” Melinda Gates explains. “Recognize that unpaid work is still work. Reduce the amount of time and energy it takes. And Redistribute it more evenly between women and men.”

The first two R’s seem relatively straightforward to me. Anyone who has ever cleaned a home or hired a babysitter can recognize that domestic work is still work. And reducing the time and energy required for household tasks is a problem that money can solve. Access to electricity and washing machines and running water, Gates points out, is a way to give women in the developing world some of their hours back. And in the wealthiest corners of America, dozens of start-ups have been funded on the premise of paying others to handle the chores and errands.

It’s tempting to think that awareness and money can solve the chore gap. I moved in with my (male) partner more than a year ago, and I frequently annoy him by constantly monitoring how much work each of us is doing around the house. This is an occupational hazard of the co-habitating heterosexual feminist: Once you know the stats about the ways in which household labor is likely to default to you, it’s hard not to wonder whether you’re falling into the trap — even when your supportive partner in no way resembles the husband in the detergent ad who’s just hanging out on the couch. With a healthy infusion of Gates money, surely we could afford a weekly housekeeper, a personal chef, and the most extravagant grocery-delivery start-up Silicon Valley has invented. But I’m not sure even those one percenter perks could solve the fundamental problem.

Indeed, when I interviewed Melinda Gates on Call Your Girlfriend, the podcast I co-host, she said she always found herself cleaning up after dinner alone, so she set a rule that no one was allowed to leave the kitchen until she did. Setting aside my skepticism that billionaires do their own dishes, her story illustrates that money doesn’t translate to equality. Here’s a woman with all of the world’s resources available to her, and yet she struggles with certain domestic burdens more than her husband does.

The thorniest problem, then, is that third R: How to redistribute domestic drudgery so that men bear an equal burden. Household socialism is easier said than done.

We know which policies would help women maintain their paying jobs. More flexible scheduling (or, in the case of hourly wage workers, rigid scheduling that’s easier to plan around); access to quality, affordable child care; and guaranteed paid time off to care for family members or new babies. But it’s not clear that enabling women to function at their highest level in the workforce translates to equality at home. America is a poor example here, as our workplaces aren’t required to offer paid leave to parents of any gender. But look at India, where that #ShareTheLoad ad is set: As of last month, a new Indian law mandates that women working in the private sector can take up to 26 weeks of paid maternity leave. Contrast this with the law’s guaranteed paternity leave, which maxes out at 15 days. It’s not exactly setting families up for equal load-sharing at home. Even when men do have access to paid leave that would allow them to labor at home, they don’t tend to take advantage of it.

And so we’re left with individual responses to the unpaid-labor gap. This is where I start getting discouraged. If the Indian grandpa in the detergent ad didn’t even feel empowered to demand his son-in-law get up off the couch, then what success is the government or a foundation going to have in raising the domestic expectations for men? If a woman like Melinda Gates still cleans up more than her husband, what hope is there for us non-billionaires? In families with a male breadwinner, there’s a perception that women simply have more time to do this stuff, or that they’re just better at it. Or that things are already equal. Even the chores themselves can be difficult to identify. Is it unpaid labor to be the one who knows where the Advil is kept, and when grandma’s birthday is, and what paperwork is due for the school field trip?

With these invisible disparities in mind, the Everyday Sexism project has been encouraging hetero couples to swap their household duties in a so-called “Chore Challenge.” It’s a small step, but it might be just as effective as new laws in individual households. Work redistribution requires men who are willing to actively examine their own household contributions, a certain amount of vigilance from women, and strong policies to support both.

Can Policy Changes Make Men Share the Housework?