[Dec. 20, 2023: JJ Shavit, The Brighter Side of News]
Men may not ‘perceive’ domestic tasks as needing doing in the same way as women, philosophers argue. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)
In the ongoing quest to understand and address gender disparities in household labor and the often-overlooked contributions of women to domestic work, philosophers have put forward a novel theory that suggests that societal conditioning shapes how men and women perceive domestic tasks and responsibilities within the same living environment.
This intriguing perspective, referred to as "affordance theory," posits that our experiences with objects and situations inherently come with implicit actions attached, and it underlies the enduring gender gap in daily household maintenance.
For instance, when women look at a cluttered countertop, they may see an implied action, such as "to be wiped," while men may merely observe crumbs strewn across the surface. This gendered divergence in domestic perception forms the basis of this thought-provoking theory.
In an article published in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, these philosophers argue that available data, particularly data collected during the COVID-19 pandemic, raise two critical questions that demand further exploration.
The first question revolves around the persistence of the gender-based disparity in household chores and childcare responsibilities, even in the face of economic and cultural advancements. The second question delves into why many men perceive domestic work as being more equitably distributed than it actually is.
Dr. Tom McClelland, hailing from Cambridge University's Department of History and Philosophy of Science, emphasizes that while traditional gender roles and economic factors like women taking flexible work for childcare contribute to this phenomenon, they are not the sole explanation.
The fact that stark inequalities in domestic tasks persisted during the pandemic, when most couples were confined to their homes, and that many men remained oblivious to this imbalance, suggests a deeper psychological underpinning.
McClelland, along with co-author Prof. Paulina Sliwa, posits that unequal divisions of labor within the household, and the inability of men to recognize this imbalance, can be best understood through the concept of "affordances." In essence, this theory contends that we perceive things as inviting or "affording" particular actions.
Sliwa, who is now affiliated with the University of Vienna, elucidates, "This is not just looking at the shape and size of a tree and then surmising you can climb it, but actually seeing a particular tree as climbable, or seeing a cup as drink-from-able. Neuroscience has shown that perceiving an affordance can trigger neural processes preparing you for physical action."
The crucial point here is that individuals exhibit significant variations in their "affordance perception." What one person may perceive as an opportunity for action, another might not notice at all. Objects in the domestic sphere offer a vast array of affordances – from a spatula being seen as an egg-frying tool to a rhythmic instrument. Furthermore, people exhibit varying degrees of sensitivity towards these affordances.
According to McClelland, applying the concept of "affordance perception" to the domestic environment, and recognizing that it is inherently gendered, goes a long way toward addressing both the questions of disparity and invisibility. When a woman enters a kitchen, she is more likely to perceive the "affordances" for particular domestic tasks – she sees the dishes as 'to be washed' or a fridge as 'to be stocked.' In contrast, a man may simply observe dishes in a sink or a half-empty fridge without experiencing the corresponding mental "tug" toward action. Over time, these subtle differences accumulate and result in significant disparities in the distribution of household chores.
Sliwa further emphasizes, "Affordances pull on your attention. Tasks may irritate the perceiver until done, or distract them from other plans. If resisted, it can create a felt tension." This situation often places women in a challenging position, where they must choose between enduring the inequality of labor or bearing the unequal cognitive load associated with recognizing and addressing these affordances.
The roots of this gender-based divergence in affordance perception are multifaceted, the philosophers argue. Early social cues play a significant role in encouraging certain actions within specific environments, often instilled by adults during early childhood. Our visual systems adapt and update based on the stimuli we encounter most frequently.
McClelland highlights, "Social norms shape the affordances we perceive, so it would be surprising if gender norms do not do the same. Some skills are explicitly gendered, such as cleaning or grooming, and girls are expected to do more domestic chores than boys. This trains their ways of seeing the domestic environment, to see a counter as 'to be wiped.'"
It is important to note that the "gendered affordance perception hypothesis" does not absolve men of their responsibilities. Despite the potential deficit in affordance perception within the home, men can still recognize what needs to be done through conscious thought rather than innate perception. Moreover, the sensitivity to domestic affordances in women should not be equated with a natural predisposition for housework.
McClelland suggests a path forward, stating, "We can change how we perceive the world through continued conscious effort and habit cultivation. Men should be encouraged to resist gendered norms by improving their sensitivity to domestic task affordances. A man might adopt a resolution to sweep for crumbs every time he waits for the kettle to boil, for example. Not only would this help them to do the tasks they don't see, it would gradually retrain their perception so they start to see the affordance in the future."
In order to bring about substantive change in societal norms, the philosophers argue for policy-level interventions. For example, implementing shared parental leave policies can provide fathers with opportunities to become more attuned to affordances related to caregiving tasks. Sliwa adds, "Our focus has been on physical actions such as sweeping or wiping, but gendered affordance perceptions could also apply to mental actions such as scheduling and remembering."
By recognizing the role of affordance perception in shaping our actions and behaviors, we may be better equipped to address the questions of disparity and invisibility that persist in our society. Ultimately, fostering greater awareness and sensitivity to domestic task affordances may pave the way for more equitable distribution of household responsibilities and a reevaluation of deeply ingrained gender norms.
For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.
Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.
Like these kind of feel good stories? Get the Brighter Side of News' newsletter.