When you think of messiness, you might think of the unsavory ways it manifests: sweaty socks left on the floor, food-encrusted dishes piled in the sink, crumbs on the counter. Messes themselves are easy to identify, but the patterns of behavior that produce them are a bit more nuanced. Really, messiness has two ingredients: making messes, and then not cleaning them up.
There is a widely held belief that boys—and later on, men—are particularly messy. At least some grounds for this stereotype exist, but sex has little to do with it. “There’s no evidence of inherent, biologically based sex differences in cleanliness or messiness,” Susan McHale, a professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, told me. She said innate preferences for orderliness might vary from child to child, but cultural factors have a significant influence, and it’s worth investigating which half of the messiness recipe is driving the gender disparity.
People’s mess-creating tendencies have not attracted much attention from researchers, but sex does not seem to be a reliable predictor of some innate ability to muck up a space. “Going to college, I wanted to move out of the dorms because the girls’ bathroom was disgusting,” Amanda Rodriguez, the author of the parenting blog Dude Mom and the mother of three teenage boys, told me. “I think that girls have it in ’em. They can do it just as well as boys can.”
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.)
The experts I consulted weren’t aware of any research on messiness among children, but they noted that this sex-based gap in chore-doing appears in childhood. One study found that it had already emerged in boys and girls at age 8. And an analysis from the Pew Research Center indicates that during the school year, girls ages 15 to 17 average about 4.4 hours of housework a week, compared with 2.8 hours for boys. “This is despite the fact that boys and girls tend to have similar time constraints, which is very different than later on, in marriage, in which men tend to devote more time to paid work,” Yavorsky told me.
These patterns form as children are internalizing American gender norms. Girls, Yavorsky said, are generally encouraged to “practice neatness [and] take pride in one’s appearance, whether that’s their bodily appearance or their own home,” whereas boys are typically steered more toward “being carefree, rough and tumble—having ‘more important’ things to care about besides neatness.” For both boys and girls, straying from these norms can incur social penalties.
From the earliest phase of parenthood, some people plot to interrupt these patterns. Samantha Allonce, a 36-year-old chef in New York City, told me that she doesn’t want her six-month-old son to grow up to be another messy man. “Whomever he lives with, he should still be able to clean his home and take care of it so that no matter who he becomes or who enters his life, that’s not something that they’re required to do for him,” she told me.
A couple of trends bode well for her effort. The first is that kids’ housework patterns seem to be shaped by their parents’, on some level. Often, this means that girls spend more time cooking and doing housework with their moms, and boys spend more time on home improvement and leisure activities with their dads, but parents could put in extra effort not to fall into those patterns. Additionally, boys with a working mother tend to grow up to do more chores as adults. The second is that although disparities in housework tend to arise in childhood, that doesn’t mean they’re set for life. Research indicates that the time women spend doing housework tends to go down the more they contribute to their household’s income and that the time men spend doing housework in dual-income households tends to go up when they work remotely (or at least, it did according to data from before the pandemic).
Much of this might be encouraging for parents like Allonce, but in a society where boys and girls (and then men and women) receive ongoing messages about who must keep spaces tidy, not being messy is a lifelong project—and one that men can always decide to devote themselves to. Even the surgeons.