The vexed issue of women in academia has been much in the news lately: first there was a report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on the disproportionate number of women who leave science, and then there was a letter signed by over 50 high-profile academics urging universities to reconsider criteria for promotion to professor, on the grounds that current criteria overlook activities that women value more than men.
I will watch with interest to see whether this proposal is taken seriously, and if so, what impact it has. My argument here, though, is that in addition to such institutional changes, we need to see changes in attitude at the individual level if we really want to retain talented women in academia.
Most men I know who are partners or spouses of female academics do not regard themselves as sexist or chauvinist. They value fairness in society and regard discrimination on the basis of gender or ethnicity as abhorrent. They may not always agree with specific initiatives to improve the lot of women in academic jobs, but they take the issue seriously. This desire for fairness does not always, however, translate into everyday behaviour.
This thought was prompted when I was on holiday idly watching a television channel that had a large number of commercial breaks. In most of these, there was an advertisement for Ecover cleaning products. This shows various people energetically, cheerfully, and even erotically cleaning while the song "I feel good!" plays in the background. The thing that struck me was that there were around ten adults in the advert, and, apart from a man making a bed, all of them appeared to be female. Some were accompanied by children whom they were presumably responsible for.
Now, I know that there are people who like cleaning, but in my experience they are in a minority. Most people find it tedious and tiring. And for a lot of working women, a general negative view of cleaning is exacerbated by a sense of injustice, because they live with a man who does not do his fair share. You don't have to take my word for it – there's research on this issue and it chimes with the everyday experience of many women – and indeed with the picture presented in the Ecover ad.
As a data nerd, I was delighted to find there is a large publicly accessible dataset relevant to this issue which is part of the International Social Survey Programme. Researchers have asked respondents from many countries about how much housework they do and whether it is fair. Here are some figures I extracted from the survey after filtering the set to include only those couples who were living with a spouse or partner, where both partners had a university degree, and both were working full time, which gave a total sample of just over 1000.
One question was: "On average, how many hours a week do you personally spend on household work, not including childcare and leisure time activities?" The mean response was 7.2 hr for men and 13.0 hr for women. (The numbers were pretty similar regardless of whether they came from male or female respondents). Another question concerned perceived fairness: on a 5-point scale, respondents rated whether they did much more than their fair share to much less than their fair share. Results are shown in the Figure below. It is clear that while many respondents were satisfied with the fairness of division of work, a sizeable proportion of women felt they did an unfair share of work, balanced by a proportion of men who recognised that they were not doing their fair share.
There was also a specific item on cleaning. Among women, 46% said they always or usually did the cleaning, compared with 7% of men. The same pattern was seen for other specific items on laundry, shopping, meal preparation and caring for sick family members. The only exception was an item on carrying out small household repairs, which men were more likely to do than women. This is noteworthy because it is one activity that can give a sense of achievement that once it is done it is done. The reason housework is such drudgery is because it needs doing continually, and any sense of pleasure in having completed it is tinged with knowledge that will need redoing again soon.
This all chimes with anecdotal experience: if you talk to women, many will tell you it is easier to do the cleaning yourself than to try and get your partner to do it, because they'll typically do it badly so it will need doing again. And men don't spontaneously note the need to do housework: they seem to have a kind of agnosia for filth, and so won't clean until things start to smell bad or attract vermin, and sometimes not even then.
I realise that there are men who defy the stereotypes and who are as willing to don the Marigolds as any woman (though, as was pointed out on Twitter, the sizing of rubber gloves assumes that the wearer will be female). But the statistical evidence is out there and it is stark: blokes, many of you who have a female partner are exploiting her. This applies to female academics just as much to other professions. Every hour that she spends mopping floors or cleaning toilets is an hour that she could have spent writing a paper – and the survey data suggest that if men did their fair share, she'd have an extra 3 to 4 hours per week. These effects are small but cumulative. By not doing your fair share, you are adding to the pressures that lead her to be less successful in, and ultimately to quit, academia. You might not like cleaning, but believe me, neither does she. She just does it because someone has to and it's often easier to get on and do it than to nag a reluctant partner.
Do you recognise yourself? If so, here's some advice. Do not ask your partner 'Can I help?' Although this would be a move in the right direction, it indicates that you regard it as her responsibility. Instead, look around, become alert to dirt and disorder, and when you see it, eradicate it. Not sure how to do it? You will be amazed at what you can find on the internet. Here, for instance, are complete instructions for how to wash dishes, iron a shirt, and clean a toilet.
When considering how to divide up household responsibilities, there is no one model that will be right for everyone. Most married women of my mother's generation took it for granted that they would stay at home and take responsibility for the housework while their husband was the breadwinner. Some couples may still prefer to work that way. Other may feel they have settled upon a fair division of labour with each doing tasks they are best suited to. Another solution is to employ a cleaner. But if you are a man in a relationship with a woman who does most of the cleaning, don't assume she's doing it because she likes it. Ask her whether she thinks the amount of housework she does is fair, and if not, take action.
Lanning, T., Laura Bradley, Darlington, R., & Gottfried, G. (2013). Great Expectations: exploring the promises of gender equality. London: Institute for Public Policy Research.
As requested by a commenter, here is a link to the dataset that I used to derive the figure (after filtering the data as explained above).