Is there anything which can make men do housework – even if they are out of work?

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- Credit: Archant

Who does most of the housework in your house and would that change if your spouse was out of work? The findings of a study at the University of Essex may surprise you (or not). Sheena Grant reports.

When University of Essex researcher Dr Karon Gush started a study into how couples coped with redundancy during the last recession she was particularly interested to see if a long-held theory held true - spouses, usually women, would step in to pick up more work if the main breadwinner lost their job.

But in many ways some of the other things also revealed along the way proved to be more interesting - and sometimes a little surprising.

Among the couples she interviewed Karon discovered a depressing fact. After more than 40 years of feminism women still do the bulk of the housework - even if they are working and their partners have been made redundant.

And what’s more, they don’t seem to mind.


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“One of the really interesting things is now strong gender norms are,” says Karon. “Where men had surplus time relative to what they were used to, they tended not to do much more domestic work. And women did not expect them to. They seemed to recognise that looking for a new job was a job in itself, that losing your job can be emotionally traumatic and they needed to give their spouse some space.

“In addition, some of the women also said that if the men did the housework it wouldn’t meet the standard they expected and they would have to do it again anyway.”

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Karon, a senior research officer with the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, interviewed 17 couples locally and further afield as part of the Economic and Social Research Council-funded study.

Working with colleagues James Scott and Heather Laurie, she also used data from Understanding Society, an on-going project to capture information about the circumstances and attitudes of people living in the UK, to analyse how couples changed their expectations, preferences and behaviour as the 2008 recession hit home.

“We were interviewing couples who had been together five to 10 years or longer in some cases,” she says. “They were from a range of ages and family situations but all had experienced job loss or a drop in hours of more than 10.

“We found that in terms of unpaid, domestic labour very little changed at all but having said that it is important to remember that among the people we interviewed, those who wanted to be in work were not unemployed for very long.

“However they shared domestic chores or bringing in money before job loss threatened, they wanted to keep that balance unless they were in the category of people who decided to do something different with their lives after redundancy.

“Women may be working much more after the equality legislation of the 1970s but gender norms are very pervasive and seem to be accepted. They may have more choice than they did but it is not necessarily a free choice – they are making choices from a range seen as viable. They may want a certain type of career but it’s not possible because of the constraints at home. We’re all familiar with the idea that women could have it all – they could work and still have a perfect family life – but actually it’s a lot more complicated than that.

“Having said that, in many ways women do have more freedom than men. You still don’t see many stay-at-home dads standing at the school gates. To be a woman in the workplace is a lot easier than to be a stay-at-home dad. Men are much more involved in child rearing than they often used to be but that flexibility to take on the role of main carer hasn’t happened for men in the same way.

“Things are changing but where there are question marks as to how far down the road of genuine equality we are - and how much women want to go down that road.”

The findings about household chores chime with other studies in recent years.

In 2012 analysis by the Institute of Public Policy Research thinktank showed eight out of 10 married women did more household chores than their husbands. Only one in 10 married men did an equal amount of cleaning and washing as his wife.

Among the other surprising things turned up by Karon’s study, Households’ responses to spousal job loss: ‘all change’ or ‘carry on as usual’?, was that people tend to stick their heads in the sand about the risks of unemployment, even when it looks like they are going to lose their job.

“We wanted to see if people responded reactively or proactively to the threat of job loss,” she says. “Did they start to look for another job before they were made redundant or wait until it happened? Also, do they make knee-jerk reactions or sit back, take stock and see what happens over the long term after redundancy? Do you try and regain the ‘status quo’ in an economic and domestic sense or do you do something different?

“What we found is that most people are reactive rather than proactive. They knew they might lose their job but didn’t do anything about it. Some people found that difficult to explain. They were embarrassed. They don’t know why they didn’t do anything.

“Others said there was a small chance they might keep their job and they wanted to put all their effort into that. People thought redundancy wouldn’t happen and if it did it wouldn’t happen to them. A lot of them spoke about redundancy as a shock.

“One man working in IT said he didn’t want to jump ship in case the same thing happened elsewhere. At least with his current employer he had some employment rights.

“If you believe you could lose your job it would be reasonable to assume you’d start putting out feelers. But looking for a job is a full time job in itself. There’s emotional damage as well. People’s work identity was extremely important. They didn’t like being out of work. It was tied with emotions around rejection and being told they weren’t needed anymore.”

The research also found that the way jobseekers are perceived by society had an effect too.

“This idea of ‘shirkers and strivers’ meant people didn’t want to sign on, even though they were perfectly entitled to,” says Karon. “They wanted to be in work, contributing, especially if they were in a profession where they needed to keep their skills up to date.

“There are whole policy areas about supporting people back into work and the measures governments take. People spoke about being on Jobseeker’s Allowance and how it was unwelcome although they were entitled to it. There is something to be said about the kind of rhetoric that goes around benefits. It’s an insurance system. When you need it, you draw down but that is not how it’s perceived.”

There was, however, a group of people for whom redundancy wasn’t a negative thing.

“It made them sit back and think how they wanted their life to go,” says Karon. “It was like reaching a crossroads and doing something different.”

One of the women interviewed wanted to start a family while another couple chose to become foster carers and others used the experience as a catalyst to starting their own business.

And what about the so-called added worker effect? If the main earner loses their job does their spouse try and pick up more paid work as a result? “Actually,” says Karon, “unless people planned a lifestyle change they tried to retain as much of their previous existence as possible. Rather than head out to the labour market the secondary earner, if a woman, would redouble her efforts to get husband back into work. To weather loss of income in the meantime they would try and cut back on their outgoings, postpone holidays or put off purchases.

“They took evasive action in their finances as opposed to having a major upheavel in how their domestic lives were organised. Those who wanted to find new work (after job loss) did so pretty quickly. None of the couples described themselves as struggling to put food on the table and we interviewed people from a range of incomes. If they had found it difficult to put food on the table they would have found work somehow and the added worker effect would have come into play.”

Phillipa, who lives in Stowmarket, describes what happened when her husband, Joe, who works in IT, lost his job.

“We thought Joe’s job might be under threat for a while before he was made redundant in 2010. You could just tell the firm wasn’t doing very well,” she says. “He thought he’d be able to pick up contract work pretty quickly even if he couldn’t find a permanent job. But it was more difficult than he thought.

“Applying for jobs takes a lot of time and although I work two days a week he didn’t really do any more around the house. To be honest, he just made a mess that I had to clear up when I came home. It got quite difficult. I ended up helping him to look for a job too in any spare time I had, trawling the internet and suggesting things to him.

“He did get quite down after a couple of months and thought about retraining or getting me to increase my working hours. I didn’t want to do that as he can earn more money than me. Plus, I’ve got children (then aged five and seven) to look after.

“He found another job - paying less - after about six months. It was a relief. He’s since changed jobs again and is back up to the salary he was earning when he was made redundant.”

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