Which leaves the second half of the messiness equation: the likelihood that someone cleans up a mess once it’s made. As researchers have studied gender imbalances in how couples divvy up housework, one common but flimsy rationalization they hear from men in different-sex relationships is that women have higher standards of cleanliness or are simply better at managing housework, so it’s only natural that they’d do more of it. For instance, Darcy Lockman, the author of All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, quotes a dad reflecting on his household contributions:
When it comes to the kids’ laundry, I could be more proactive, but instead I operate on my time scale. So my wife does most of their laundry. Let me do it my way and I’m happy to do it, but if you’re going to tell me how to do it, go ahead and do it yourself.
When men make comments like these, they conveniently obscure reality in two ways. The first was demonstrated in a 2019 study that asked some 600 respondents to evaluate an image of a room in either an orderly or an untidy state. Based on those assessments, the researchers wrote that “men and women respondents do not differ in their perceptions of how messy a room is or how urgent it is to clean it up.” So men seem to recognize a mess just as clearly as women do.
An important difference, though, was how participants evaluated the room’s hypothetical inhabitant. They tended to say that the clean room looked messier when told a woman lived in it than when told a man did. On top of that, they thought that a woman would be subject to harsher judgment from visitors based on the state of her less-than-pristine living space—which reflects the broader “social penalties,” as the researchers put it, that women can expect if they don’t meet this higher, gendered standard.
The second convenient elision is that many of the same men who purport to be subpar chore-doers are perfectly capable of handling the demands of highly skilled jobs. When Allison Daminger, a doctoral student at Harvard, interviewed college-educated couples about housework, she noticed that attributes that helped many of the men she spoke with succeed at work, such as being proactive and thorough, “were somehow invisible—or not deployed—after hours.” One surgeon, for example, told her that he can “go a very long time before it hits me that now is the time to deal with,” say, a burnt-out light bulb. He was quick to clarify: “I mean, in the home life—not, like, work.”
“They can run businesses, but they can’t figure out a mop,” Jill Yavorsky, a sociologist at UNC Charlotte, says of men like this. “It isn’t, of course, a lack of skills, but rather the privilege and gender norms that enables them to bargain their way out of this type of work” at home.
This suggests that if men are generally messier than women, the root of that gap might lie in how much of the burden of cleaning up is pushed onto women by cultural default. This pattern matches up with the distribution of chores in practice: In the U.S., women on average spend about an hour a day cleaning and doing laundry, compared with roughly 20 minutes a day for men. (Meanwhile, men average about half an hour more leisure time a day than women.)