Analysis: while most children do very little housework, research has found that it's mostly girls who pick up the slack

By Caoimhe O'Reilly and Mike Quayle, University of Limerick

Irish children don’t offer much help at home - but when they do, it’s mostly the girls who pick up the slack. This is what we found in our research exploring the housework habits of children in Ireland by using data from the Growing up in Ireland study, which follows the development of over 8,000 Irish children. The children were asked about their housework when they were nine and 13 years of age.

One finding was clear: most children living in Ireland do very little housework. But when we looked at what housework the children were doing, it quickly became apparent that it was the girls who bore the brunt of the work. At nine years of age, girls were already clocking up more housework time than boys. By the age of 13, the gap in housework had increased, as the boys were doing even less housework than when they were nine.

There were also differences in the types of chores that children were doing. At nine, girls were doing chores that would traditionally be associated with 'women’s work’ such as washing dishes, cooking, cleaning and caring duties. Boys, on the other hand, were doing more ‘masculine’ chores, such as cutting the grass, putting out the bins and cleaning the car. As they entered their teenage years, their chores became even more gender-typical.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, is housework the big sexist elephant in the room?

Why is this important? Gender is one of the many things we learn to do in childhood. Once learned, these habits may be difficult to break. Conducting housework (or escaping it) is a way for children to learn gender roles, shaping their expectations of their futures. Our research shows that Irish children are learning that girls are more responsible for housework than boys. They are also learning that women and men are responsible for different types of work. Without intervention, these learned behaviours are likely to continue to define their housework expectations as adults.

This is not a trivial issue. Doing more than your share for a lifetime is a genuine inequality. Research is clear that unequal housework divisions in adulthood have many negative consequences for women, hindering career progression and negatively affecting psychological well-being and relationships.

Traditionally ‘feminine’ chores are more time consuming and repetitive than typically ‘masculine’ tasks – laundry is a constant burden, but bins only have to be taken out a few times a week. For boys, spending less time on housework leaves more time for hobbies, socialising and organised activities.

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From RTÉ Archives, a 1987 episode of Evening Extra where Shay Healy surveys people in Dublin and Naas to find out who does the housework in their homes

And what will the boys do with all the free time they accumulate over a lifetime? Even at nine and 13 years of age, boys may be getting more time to pursue skills and activities, like sports and clubs that provide lasting benefits. As adults, men have more free time for pursuing hobbies as well as more time for work. If we want equity in the public sphere we also have to achieve it at home.

But the news is not all good for boys, who are missing out on important formative experiences. Doing housework fosters independence and allows children to learn important skills such as responsibility and self-discipline. Our research shows that many children are missing out on these experiences because they do so little housework.

For the children who are doing housework, participating in a gendered way means missing out on key skills, like learning to cook and clean for boys, or maintaining a car for girls. Importantly, if boys do not become competent in everyday household chores, or learn that men are responsible for their share, it will be less likely that they will do their share of housework when they are adults themselves and the unequal cycle will continue. Put more bluntly, they will exploit the women in their lives who supply them with free labour.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Like Family, why are women still doing more housework than men and why do they seem to worry about it more?

So what can be done? If we value gender equality, we have to tackle housework inequality. For many heterosexual couples, negotiating domestic labour is a constant tussle. Since the default assumption is that domestic labour is women’s work, women start this particular struggle with one hand tied behind their back. During housework negotiations, men can easily fall back on the "I have lower standards" defence. Since the state of the house is more closely tied to women’s identity, women are much more likely to be negatively judged for undone housework and feel more obliged to do it. Since the scales have been weighted towards women for so long, genuine equity will feel like a heavy burden for men.

For these reasons and more, we expect that policy interventions will be more useful than relying on individual households to transform themselves. We think that policies in Ireland should acknowledge that housework inequality, and gender inequality generally, begins in childhood.

Parents and carers also have a clear role to play. If you care for a child, teach them how to conduct all types of housework. Be aware of the types of chores you ask your girls and boys to do and try to ensure that girls and boys are conducting similar amounts and similar types of housework. Make a special effort to teach children atypical household skills as these efforts at home can help shape a more equal and inclusive future for all of our children. Of course, once you’ve got the kids busy cooking the dinner and cutting the grass, you can put your feet up knowing that you’ve done your bit for society.

You can read the full article - Gender inequalities in time spent doing housework by children in Ireland - here

Caoimhe O'Reilly is a PhD researcher at the University of Limerick working on the DAFINET team. Dr Mike Quayle is a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Limerick, working with the Centre for Social Issues Research and the Mathematics Applications Consortium for Science and Industry (MACSI).


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ