We’ve all seen commercials like this: A child makes a mess, and Dad has no idea how to clean it up. Good thing Mom is in the next room! She brings order to the disarray and delivers a message in the process: “Ads often convey the idea that women are inherently better at household chores than men,” says Erica Scharrer, a professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Back in 2004, Scharrer studied the commercials that aired over the course of one week on prime-time TV shows. Of 477 characters depicted completing chores, 305 were women and 159 were men. Of the male characters, 50 percent were portrayed as comically inept. By contrast, more than 90 percent of the female characters were portrayed as competent.
These types of ads have pervaded the airwaves for so long, they have penetrated our subconscious—which may be the reason, in part, why approximately one in three married women in our survey said they were uncomfortable delegating household chores to their spouses. One of the main reasons the women gave: that their husbands wouldn’t do the chores the way the women wanted them done. In fact, 45 percent of women with spouses who have identical (or higher) household standards felt very uncomfortable delegating organizing or decluttering jobs. Why? Organizing requires management skills and may give women a sense of authority they may be reluctant to relinquish,” says Melissa Milkie, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, in College Park.
If commercials promote the notion that the wife “knows best” when it comes to home upkeep, then decorating-themed TV shows make it a point of pride. On the DIY Network and HGTV, home maintenance is characterized as a creative and empowering endeavor. The programming is a double-edged sword, warns Michelle Janning, a research fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families and an associate professor of sociology at Whitman College, in Walla Walla, Washington. Women may feel excited by decorating and cleaning, but it still siphons their time and energy away from other activities, she says.
Of course, the idea that women rule the home isn’t a new one. It has always been a place where we can generally set our own standards, a “sphere in which some women who have been denied power in other parts of their life have been able to obtain and maintain power,” says Susan Strasser, the Richards Professor of American History at the University of Delaware, in Newark, and the author of Never Done: A History of American Housework ($12.50, amazon.com). And for many there’s something intrinsically appealing about tidying up. “The kind of work that goes on in a household has a concreteness that some women relish,” says Strasser.
Perhaps that’s why we rush out to buy a new mop when we see a woman on TV smiling down at her sparkling floor. She looks so satisfied. If only our husbands could see the appeal.