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The fiction of work sharing

Illustration: J.A. Premkumar

Illustration: J.A. Premkumar  

Men haven’t taken to housework as memes would have you believe.

Are men sharing housework during the lockdown? Social media is flooded with memes and satire on men cooking and cleaning the house. This is intriguing, and it looks like the onslaught of the deadly virus and the steps taken to combat it have brought in changes in gender equations which collective action by women and sensitisation programmes over the years have not been able to achieve.

Gender studies have revealed that men do not share household chores even if the economic equations place women in a better position than them. In most Indian families, the ethos is that the household chores such as sweeping, swabbing and washing vessels are the work of women; men’s participation in such “mundane tasks” is taboo. If the virus has indeed brought in changes in the social structure and gender equations, it is an appreciable and positive outcome with long-term implications for the family, society and economy.

But are men, tied to the house with “nothing else to do” and no help for household chores, sharing work as claimed? This needs probing, and conversations with a few men and women across socio-economic strata revealed interesting insights.

No new recruits

To begin with, men are still not taking part in the entire gamut of housework, and those contributing have been doing some of the chores earlier too, though occasionally. There are no fresh entrants. Men doing a bit more housework than others are considered “exceptionally helpful” even in the face of a ravaging pandemic.

What is more interesting is the inclination to carry out specific tasks. For many, sweeping using a broom is a definite ‘no’. A woman from a conservative family said that if men touched the broom, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, would vanish from home.

The gender division of work defined by patriarchal norms is deeply entrenched within the psyche of both genders. Men who share household work prefer to do something “more masculine” than sweeping the floor and washing vessels. The reason for this, unvoiced, is their reluctance to undertake unpaid, unappreciated responsibilities and when they do, they perceive it more as charity. As they get to choose, they prefer something more tangible and ego-boosting such as cooking.

The popular belief that men are the breadwinners has conditioned them to equate work with monetary benefits. The term breadwinner has never been associated with women, even in families where they earn more than men or are the only breadwinner. At best, a woman is considered a contributor to the family income, downplaying the importance of her work. Women too play a crucial role in reinforcing this notion as they get subconsciously unnerved to violate gender norms and expectations.

Society judges the conduct of a man or a woman based on gender ideology — beliefs and values that characterise what is right for each sex. This explains why larger platforms of social media are not flooded with real-time visuals of men sweeping the floor.

Old chestnut

Many men say that being fastidious, women did not trust them with the cleanliness task. Impeccably kept homes are associated with women’s self-worth. Traditionally, home domain and care-giving roles have been central to the gender identity of women and a source of power and authority. Men “lack the ability” and are “never trained to acquire life-skills over aeons” are excuses that women put forth to hold on to their sense of entitlement over designated household roles.

Women, even those economically independent, generally do not perceive the unequal distribution of work as unjust. Some even say the workload increase and lack of parity in sharing it is easier to accept than the never-ending demand for varieties of food by men who are at home 24x7. Only those emotionally independent consider the disparity in workload unfair.

With the dawning of the realisation that men are not really the protectors of their honour and safety, a parable that has been in vogue for generations, women are becoming emotionally more independent. With the change in emotional equations, “home-work” friction is bound to increase.

A major event celebrated this year prior to the lockdown was International Women’s Day on March 8, and there has been plenty of free time to ponder on redefining gender roles and bridging gender gaps. Social distancing has been helpful in delaying the onslaught of the virus but not in ending the unspoken oppression at home. Old-school social norms are difficult to change and have remained regressive. It takes more than a pandemic to bring about a fundamental change, and till then, it is business as usual.

mayasitaram@gmail.com

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Printable version | May 28, 2020 9:40:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-fiction-of-work-sharing/article31659183.ece

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