A Theology of Gender Roles Part One: Chores

November 5, 2011 in MicroTheology, Theologia Ordinarius

Despite substantial improvements from the 1960’s, statistics from the Bureau of Labor show that women still shoulder a heavier burden of household chores, especially in the areas of cooking and cleaning.  And while such divisions may actually be equal when mixed with statistics showing that men are still shouldering the burden of work outside of the home, the question of how and why these divisions continue to crop up becomes one of concern.

Even more concerning is the fact that children, even at young ages, often show beliefs of chore division by gender. For example, vacuuming might be seen as a “girl chore” and mowing the lawn as a “boy chore.” The appearance of such beliefs are often shocking to parents who have attempted to model no such divisions in their own style of domestic life.

Interestingly enough, these parents may have to look no further than their own living room in searching for the source of these neotraditional views. This is because the individuals featured on television and in commercials have not progressed as far as their real life counterparts have. (Ever seen a commercial with a woman mowing the lawn? How about a commercial with a man standing behind a vacuum?)

And while adults often doubt the level of influence such advertising has over them (“I don’t even pay attention to commercials”), much evidence shows that these subtle visual guides shape us more than we realize, not to mention the ways they shape our little charges. Thus, unclogging the toilet becomes “manly,” while scrubbing it becomes “girly.” And barbecuing is “a man’s job,” while baking, well, “women are better at that.”

Motivation and Priming

Interestingly enough, such constructs about gender roles are not benign but invasive, often impacting us in deep ways, the primary of which is our motivation. In Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine suggests that one’s ability to master a specific task is often dependent upon their motivation to do so, and that such motivation is dependent upon how much social value they will gain from the particular achievement.

For instance, in the case of spatial skills, an ability that men are said to perform better at, Fine suggests that outcome may be dependent upon as little as a simple change of context (and thus, motivation). Fine recalls two experiments conducted, one, which featured spatial skills in the form of airplanes, and a second, which featured spatial skills in the form of textiles and clothing manufacturing. She reports that while men outdid their female counterparts on the first test, the results were opposite for the second. Thus, when faced with a task that was socially indicative of their sex, the participants were able to muster up enough motivation to succeed.

To run tangent for a while, I often think of sewing and baking as the ultimate examples of motivation at work within the female gender.  Both tasks often require mind-numbing precision (even when pursued creatively) and a large allotment of time. Thus, to do these tasks requires a good deal of motivation, and it makes sense that if one’s social value was not based on these activities, one would probably never pursue them. As a girl, however, the accomplishment of baking brownies or hand-stitching booties is often met with a great deal of praise, and thus, often seen as worth the effort. Similarly, working with wood or tinkering with electronics, both of which also require precision and time, may be worth the effort to men, who will likely receive praise for these accomplishments.

Another way constructs of gender can affect our behavior is through priming. For instance, Fine also reported that when participants were told that a test was designed to measure something their gender was naturally good at, they performed better, and that when told they would be tested on something the opposite gender was better at, they performed worse.

Having worked in the past as a tutor, I myself can relate to the powerful effects of priming. As a beginning tutor, in order to not make a student feel bad for struggling with a new and challenging concept, I would often mention that the concept was slightly more difficult than the one before. What happened, however, is that the student would automatically start having problems with the new exercises and, sometimes, even the older ones if we switched back to the preceding level. Thus, as humans, we are often more sensitive than we realize to the expectations that society places on us, and we can easily shape-shift in order to fill these roles.

A Christian Division of Labor

While each Christian marriage is going to look differently in terms of logistics (money has to be made, the kids have to be raised, etc.) it is important to realize that activities do not have to be based upon gender or social value. For Christians, value comes solely from our creation in God’s image and our subsequent attempts to model our lives after His example. It is for this value alone that we should muster up motivation, and thus, bake brownies not because doing so will earn us points as a woman (in societies’ eyes) but because doing so can be an act of love (by both men and women) and thus worthy of praise (in God’s eyes).

Similarly, neither men nor women should be given extra points for doing chores typically placed in the category of the opposite gender. Way too often I see wives giving enormous praise to their husbands for lending a hand in the kitchen or doing the dishes. [for one night!] Oftentimes, this only leads to reinforcing the stereotype that men are not normally expected to do these chores, and thus, that such effort of actually pitching in is worthy of inordinate praise. Ideally, Christian marriage should consist of men and women living under an equal and mutual amount of expectations and gratitude. Thus, if my husband says thank you to me for doing this week’s laundry (as he should), I say thank you to him for doing this week’s grocery shopping (as I should). Gratitude is an absolute must, but mutual participation is expected, and thus, nobody gets gold stars.

Furthermore, especially in the case of new marriages, Christians should take time to check for any automatic expectations they may be harboring toward their spouse, and re-evaluate these expectations outside the lines of gender. And this doesn’t just mean that husbands shouldn’t automatically expect wives to do the dishes, organize the cabinets, and plan the dinner meals, but also, that wives shouldn’t automatically expect husbands to unclog the drains, change the oil, and fix the broken light bulbs. As said before, all of these tasks require, at the very least, a mere amount of motivation and, at most, a minuscule amount of research on the internet. Thus, to always wait for your spouse to take care of a certain activity may be perpetuating the societal concepts of masculine and feminine more than the Christian concepts of stewardship and service.

Finally, I think it is important for Christians to remember to cut each other slack. Just as it would be wrong for a husband to become angry at a wife for forgetting to run the dishwasher overnight, it would also be wrong for a wife to yell at her husband for accidentally leaving her cashmere sweater in the dryer or accidentally putting soap on a cast iron pan. While there is something to be said about Christians needing to be conscientious and thoughtful in their actions, everybody makes mistakes and it is important to not have expectations of either gender that don’t allow room for mistakes.