Gender bias derails a conversation on organization

Unclutterer is a popular blog for people looking to de-clutter their homes, schedules, possession and lives in general. It covers topics ranging from housework to making technology work for you on the job. Imagine my surprise when a recent post gave me fodder for an article.

In Gender stereotypes and uncluttering, Erin talks about:

In the comments to last week’s post “10 more uncluttering things to do every day,” a few readers were upset because they believed the list put a greater burden on women to vacuum more often. If you read the post, you’ll notice that gender isn’t discussed a single time in the text. The post’s author never says that women should vacuum more, just that it might be a good idea to run the vacuum every day (especially if you have kids and pets). The assumption that vacuuming is a woman’s chore is just as ridiculous of a stereotype as thinking that a woman is required, simply based on her gender, to “properly keep house.”

It’s 2010, and I say it’s time we let go of gender-related stereotypes associated with men and women and their duties at home.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Then I clicked over to the original article (linked above within the blockquote) and read it. It lists 10 suggestions, among them “Vacuum everyday.” I think that one’s over the top for many of us, but if it works for you that’s great, and it certainly doesn’t have to be The Woman Of The Home who does it. Then I started reading the comments:

Yet more advice to reduce one’s involvement in the community and other people for the sake of having a “clutter-free” home. Right, because people (especially women) tend to be soooooo over-involved with their communities and spend too much time socializing and having fun (in their time off of work) with adults whose company is enriching, and not enough time being the perfect homemaker. –MsD

She’s not talking about vacuuming. She’s talking about another item on the list which advises you to take stock of all the committees and organizations and socializing you’re part of and consider dumping some or all of them. That’s reasonable enough advice, isn’t it? And Erin points out the author didn’t mean you must dump all these things from your life; just that for some people, that might be the right choice.

Wow, the commenters sure let MsD know that was harsh! Then:

I know it’s not explicitly aimed at only women, but look at the names on this comment thread! Most housework, including uncluttering, is done by women. MsD might have been saying it too harshly but she has a very good point – telling an audience largely comprised of women that they should stop sitting on school boards and start mopping the floorboards should set some warning lights flashing. –MissPrism

Erin replies that actually their audience is mostly male. (So is ours, by the way – it’s been holding steady at 48% female for years now. But you do know all of this relies on self-reporting and educated guesses extrapolated on a bit of a reach from various statistics.) MissPrism responds with:

Thanks for the correction, Erin. Still, I’m hugely uneasy with this advice. Men are very rarely criticised or shamed about their housekeeping, and almost never excluded from public life. So the suggestion that one ought to drop activities outside the house in order to free up time to vacuum is not going to affect men and women equally.

And there you have it. The commenters weren’t just assuming the suggestion to vacuum fell solely on women, as Erin states in her more recent article. They were reacting to an implication that could be drawn from this article whether the author meant it or not. I mean, let’s imagine how this article would play to someone’s “traditional gender roles” mother, domestic partner or low self-esteem female friend:

  • Mother: “In my day, we did it all and still had time to cook from scratch 6 times a day. Of course, we didn’t have to have jobs to feel good about ourselves. We were content to be ignored and undervalued. If you’d quit working, you’d have time for all this.”
  • Partner: “See, I told you the problem is you’re just trying to do too much and be a Super Woman with all your committees. Now go fetch me my beer before you vacuum and settle in for the night.”
  • Low self-esteem friend: “Maybe Asshole wouldn’t have so many affairs if I’d just stop seeing my friends and spend more time keeping his house clean.”

But the thread gets worse. “Bob” calls MissPrism “sexist” for her above-cited comments. She – probably foolishly – tries to explain facts to him. After blaming women for men’s failure to do more housework, he says:

In fairness, you have an unfair attitude towards men. We’re not all slobs and some of us actually do housework. How can you be “hugely uneasy” with the advice to vacuum more, as if the advice somehow unfairly targets women?

This in a thread where someone called “Amess” lamented that his wife doesn’t adhere to the steps listed in the article.

Here at Hathor, we’re often told we’re reading too much into things (by trolls whose comments don’t make it through moderation), and I feel that’s where Erin’s second post goes a bit askance. I clicked over to the first article, fully expecting to read commenters with women’s names complaining that they don’t have time to vacuum, but what I read instead was a slightly overheated but fully legitimate concern that the implication of the items as a group was that women needed to find fulfillment in a pristine home rather than fixing their communities and hanging out with friends.


  1. says

    You know, this is all relevant and interesting. But the only thing I can think about is:

    I’m supposed to vacuum EVERY DAY?

    Well, gee, I think I’ll take my home cluttered then.

  2. Anemone says

    I have seen daily vacuuming recommended for high traffic areas in larger households, like the front hallway. It may lengthen the life of the carpet. But it would have to be something you train yourself to do on autopilot, like sweeping the kitchen floor once a day after cleanup. I don’t do that, either, but then, I live alone.

    I thought the thing about decluttering, though, was that if you kept your life simple, you wouldn’t have to clean as much as often.

  3. says

    I thought the thing about decluttering was that clutter is Stuff You Don’t Use, In The Way. If you don’t have clutter, you don’t need to move it out of the way before cleaning, so cleaning is faster and easier to fit in.

    I hadn’t ever been to before, but I clicked through to the list in question. Only the last three things on that list look to me like true uncluttering projects: every day, identify one thing as clutter and get rid of it; declutter a small area; and “Re-evaluate the necessity of your involvement in groups, clubs, committees or boards. Limit yourself to participating in things that are important to you and make you happy.” Notice that it explicitly advocates quitting groups that aren’t worthwhile, not quitting things that make you happy or accomplish your goals.

    The rest of that list, though, isn’t about decluttering: it’s about staying clean, tidy, and organized. Keep up with your email, keep up with the laundry and trash, put everything away right away. The vacuuming recommendation is because “Vacuuming ensures everything is up off the floor.” In other words, the vacuuming is really an enforcement mechanism to make yourself clear everything off the floor every day. Or rather, every night: there’s a huge emphasis on doing all these things every night before bed. Personally, I want to wind down at night.

    The 10-things list was actually written by “Sherri Kruger, editor of Zen Family Habits”; I would guess that explained the non-clutter focus, but Erin’s original “10 Uncluttering Things” list is similarly focused on staying organized rather than getting rid of clutter.

  4. amymccabe says

    As horrible as it sounds, I didn’t vacuum for nearly three months. Neither did my husband. I was horribly sick through the whole first trimester of my pregnancy and my husband was trying to balance work, taking on extra in the house and taking care of me, as I was often too ill to care properly for myself.

    This article reminds me of the moment I had, sometime in all of that, where I was incredibly happy with my choice in husbands and in my husband. The last serious relationship was with a guy who had very strong feelings about what was a woman’s job, mainly cooking and cleaning. I remember when we were living together and I had gotten pretty sick for a couple of days. The dishes piled up, he was left to fend for himself for food, I was more or less ignored and he did his normal routine the best he could. Day one he had a brave face. “I can manage this.” By day two he was obviously annoyed. By day 3 he was nagging me to get out of bed and take care of his piling dishes and cook him some food.

    It’s the difference between a man who actually sees women as human (and cares about those involved in his life) and a man who seems women as servants or subjects and cares about them taking care of stuff for him.

  5. says

    Thank you so much, I’m glad SOMEONE understood! Although you’re right, it wasn’t going to be Bob.
    (-An occasional lurker delighted to be mentioned on your excellent blog!)

  6. DragonLord says

    When we looked at our house and decided to do the whole vacuuming every day, we decided that as we didn’t have the time we’d just invest in a roomba. 😉

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