Blaming men won't do any good


GIVE ME A BREAK:The 'finding' that women do 39 minutes more housework per day than their partners is just a distraction from the real debate we should be having, writes Kate Holmquist.

THE NEWS THAT Irish women aged 18-97 are on average doing 39 minutes more housework per day than their male partners was one of the most popular hits on The Irish Timeswebsite last week. I suspect that this toxic little gem from the ESRI's Gender Inequalities in Time Usereport has been flung about in kitchens and bedrooms over the weekend because it tells women suffering from housework rage precisely what they want to hear.

But I have doubts about whether women actually are doing 39 minutes more on average and, also, doubts about whether this kind of research has any value. It's not going to change anything, is it? I can't argue with the statistic of 39 minutes, though when I ventured past the press release to read the actual report, my view was that all is not as it seems.

Why did I bother? Well, after 24 years of marriage, I've developed a no-resentment policy. If you can't do something out of love, then don't do it. Standards of tidiness vary from person to person, depending on how they were reared and how they define themselves by gender, talent or whatever. Some people are such control freaks, that if the other-half can't clean as well as they can, then they take away the mop and do it themselves. If that floats your boat, do it, but don't expect your partner to ever mop the floor again.

This goes for any two people living together - married, unmarried, gay, straight, whatever. The number of minutes spent cooking, cleaning and caring is irrelevant because it's the perception of one's contribution that really matters. Other research has shown that cohabiting couples don't care how much or how little the other person does in terms of hours, as long as both people feel that it's fair.

In other words, if as a mother you are spending more time bathing, feeding and cleaning up after your kids, maybe you're doing it because you want to. And if you get your kicks out of spending hours preparing a complicated sit-down meal, while your partner is perfectly happy to eat simply in front of the box, then don't blame him/her for not taking a cordon bleu course. As long as the kitchen and bathroom aren't growing visible mould and bacteria, nobody's going to die.

Back to the report. It shows that Irish men in dual earner couples are as likely to do housework as men in other EU countries - it's just that the figures are skewed by the fact that more Irish men do none at all. And this is because a higher proportion of Irish men are in traditional marriages where the woman's role is to manage that side of things. Some couples find this a less stressful way to live. It's a choice and it certainly isn't wrong, but the report implies that it is.

I also question how the report's authors interpreted these statistics. They said that "Irish men still remain at the bottom of the league", even though the proportion of Irish men who do all the housework (10 per cent) is about the same, give or take a few percentage points, as in Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, France, the UK, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Similarly, about the same proportion of Irish men do one-quarter of the housework. When you look at how many men do up to half the housework, Irish men are also fairly equal with men in the Nordic utopia of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. It's those men who do none at all who are skewing the figures.

The authors get another swipe in by stating that women spend more time "caring" for and "nurturing" children while men are more likely to spend time "playing" with them. But isn't playing a way of nurturing and vice versa? Watch a mother bathing a child and she's playing with that child. When a father takes the kids out for a game of football, he's nurturing that child's development. It's being there for kids in a mindful way that counts, whether you're cooking, cleaning or helping build a Lego castle.

The report shows that women do far more unpaid work, but unless we decide to pay all people-in-the-home salaries on a par with the average industrial wage, we'll have to live with it. Men and women are wired differently and just maybe, many women enjoy "housework" and don't see it as demeaning during those early parenting years.

Irish dual-career families of the 35-55 age group have evolved, in one generation, to balance work and family life with almost no support. Compared to their fathers' generation, this generation of Irish men are saints. And what thanks do fathers get? The Equality Authority taking the ESRI report and using it as a stick to beat them, which is why that misleading 39 minutes stat is counterproductive.

Niall Crowley believes that fathers need to demand paid paternity leave and so on. Yet having small children is also a time when fathers don't want to risk their careers. Even in countries where generous periods of paid leave are available, they rarely take it up.

For women, the more important point has to do with part-time work. Women should have equal rights whether they are working full or part-time and companies of large enough size should be required to offer part-time work to a proportion of employees. That's where the real problem is - the difficulty of finding work in the morning while the kids are in school. The housework issue is just a distraction.