By Andi Simon, Ph.D.
For many of the women I have been working with during the pandemic crisis, the biggest complaint has been: “Why doesn’t my husband help pick up the mess?” “Don’t men even see the toys all around them, the dishes in the sink, the clothes needing folding?” And when they finally lend a hand, it is hardly neat or “the way I would have done it.”
Well, ladies and gentlemen, the cultural dilemma is upon us, exaggerated during the current stay-at-home, work remotely era caused by COVID-19. What wives, moms and girlfriends might have silently dealt with in the past has become a major issue when both partners are now at home together. Differences are more apparent, irritations closer to the surface.
As an anthropologist, and a wife, and a mother, I know all too well how difficult it is to change habits in adults. Once we learn our habits, they take over and drive us. My husband is a wonderful teammate but loves to leave his cabinets open, his clothes folded but not so smoothly, and his office … well let’s not discuss that. I do confess, at times my office is as big a mess as his, which is OK as long as each of us stick to our own disorderly worlds.
In a recent Atlantic article, “The Myth That Gets Men Out of Doing Chores,” Joe Pinsker writes about how these male-female differences originate partly from how boys and girls are raised, and partly from how men and women simply see things through different lenses. While some contend that boys are naturally messier than girls, there is little research to support that. If anything, boys and girls (and men and women) can both make a mess in the bedroom, the bathroom and the kitchen — indeed, making messes comes naturally to both sexes. Cleaning them up, less so.
The issue is that boys and girls are taught differently what it means to be “neat” or “messy.” There is nothing inherent in either of those words. We learn what they mean as we grow up, and the ones teaching us play a major role in handing down those cultural values about what we should or should not be doing to create order in our lives.
What matters is how we “believe” that we as humans create and manage our physical and social order, at home and outside of it. Watch boys at a sporting event — lacrosse, soccer or anything — and they learn quickly how to pack their sports bag and keep their equipment in good shape (or be yelled at by the coach). Girls do the same. In the office, men can be very neat, or not. I have had bosses with horrible office order and others who were so immaculate that it was weird. The same has been true of male or female bosses.
The question then becomes: Why do we think women should pick up the toys, fold the laundry and close the cabinets, while the guys watch their ballgame and drink their beer with a mess all around them? Humans are culture-creating and culture-living creatures. As children, we learn from parents, teachers and friends what is valued and for whom. If boys are allowed to have messy rooms because, well, they are just boys, they will quickly learn that boys can be messy, ignore the mess, and not be expected to restore order to it. If girls are told that they must clean up their rooms before they can do something they want, they learn other rules and other norms.
It really is true that what we see our mothers and fathers, and others, doing is what we mimic, in business and in life. It becomes embedded in our psyches, sometimes without our even realizing. If girls and women repeatedly hear that cleanliness is next to godliness, they will learn that making the bed, tidying the kitchen and cleaning up messes are positive reinforcements for how good and acceptable they are. Boys don’t learn this. In fact, if a boy neatly picks up his toys and then is called a sissy, what value judgement is that passing along?
So then, if you have a man in the house who repeatedly ignores the kids’ mess on the floor, think hard about what both of you are teaching your kids about personal responsibility, beyond neatness and messiness. You might during this at-home period be able to change their futures by providing them with unbiased values and beliefs about what men and women see and do. Remember, it is easier to change the kids than the guy. I would advise, though, that in your corrections to the latter, tread carefully but quickly, before the opportunity evaporates.
About Andi Simon
Andi Simon, Ph.D., author of the book Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business, is a corporate anthropologist and founder of Simon Associates Management Consultants. A trained practitioner in Blue Ocean Strategy®, Simon has conducted several hundred workshops and speeches on the topic as well as consulted with a wide range of clients across the globe. She also is the author of the award-winning book On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights. Simon has a successful podcast, On the Brink with Andi Simon, that has more than 125,000 monthly listeners, and is ranked among the top 20 Futurist podcasts and top 200 business podcasts. In addition, Global Advisory Experts named Simons’ firm the Corporate Anthropology Consultancy Firm of the Year in New York – 2020. She has been on Good Morning, America and Bloomberg, and is widely published in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Forbes, Business Week, Becker’s, and American Banker, among others. She has been a guest blogger for Forbes.com, Huffington Post, and Fierce Health.