CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Are men really “blind” when it comes to doing household chores? Philosophers believe they may have an answer as to why many men seem to be oblivious to messes right in front of them — while women know it’s time to clean.
In a study by researchers at the University of Cambridge, the team found that the theory of “affordance perception” seems to play a powerful role in the disparity between men and women when it comes to household labor. The “affordance theory” says that people experience objects and situations as having actions implicitly attached.
Study authors add that men and women have been trained by society to see different possibilities for action, even as they look at the same objects. For example, a woman may see a kitchen counter and the implied action is to wipe it down. Meanwhile, men just observe a dirt-covered counter and don’t connect it with cleaning.
The philosophers say these deep-seated gender divides in domestic perception can change with the help of several societal interventions, including longer paternal leave so new fathers get used to doing household chores more often.
Is the disparity ‘invisible’ to men?
Researchers say their study, during the coronavirus pandemic, led to two questions that needed explanation. The first had do to with disparity. Why do women continue to shoulder the load at home despite working and earning more in modern society.
The second focused on invisibility. Why do many men think the division of labor at home is fairly equal, even when it’s not?
“Many point to the performance of traditional gender roles, along with various economic factors such as women taking flexible work for childcare reasons,” says Dr. Tom McClelland, from Cambridge’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science, in a university release.
“Yet the fact that stark inequalities in domestic tasks persisted during the pandemic, when most couples were trapped inside, and that many men continued to be oblivious of this imbalance, means this is not the full story.”
That’s where the affordance theory comes in. McClelland and co-author Prof. Paulina Sliwa say humans perceive things they see as inviting (or affording) certain actions.
“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,” says Sliwa, now at the University of Vienna.
“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.”
‘Affordance perception’ can differ significantly from person to person
One person may see a tree and think “I can climb that!” Meanwhile, someone else looks at the same tree and says they can’t. Researchers say the same is true for objects in the kitchen. One person sees a spatula as an egg-cooking tool while their friends doesn’t know what to do with it.
“If we apply affordance perception to the domestic environment and assume it is gendered, it goes a long way to answering both questions of disparity and invisibility,” McClelland says.
The philosophers say that when women enter a kitchen, they are more likely to pick up on the “affordances” for certain household chores. Under this theory, a woman sees a dish as “needing to be washed” and the refrigerator as “needing to be re-filled.”
Thanks to generations of societal programming, many men simply see a dish as something that contains food and a refrigerator as something which stores the food. They don’t experience the same “mental tug” to actually act and perform a chore, the philosophers explain. This is when the disparity in household labor starts to grow.
“Affordances pull on your attention,” Sliwa explains. “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 labor or inequality of cognitive load.”
“Social norms shape the affordances we perceive, so it would be surprising if gender norms do not do the same,” McClelland adds. “Some skills are explicitly gendered, such cleaning or grooming, and girls are expected to do more domestic chores than boys. This trains their ways of seeing the domestic environment, to see a counter as ‘to be wiped’.”
This isn’t an excuse for men
The study authors note that the “gendered affordance perception hypothesis” is not a “get out of jail free card” for men looking to avoid chores. Despite there being a deficit in affordance perception at home, researchers are very capable of noticing that something needs to be done — by thinking instead of seeing.
“We can change how we perceive the world through continued conscious effort and habit cultivation,” McClelland says. “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.”
The team notes that the biggest thing society can do to help men pick up the slack at home is to provide them with more opportunities to share in the household chores — like giving fathers more time to stay home when they have a new baby.
“Our focus has been on physical actions such as sweeping or wiping, but gendered affordance perceptions could also apply to mental actions such as scheduling and remembering,” Sliwa concludes.
The findings are published in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.