Playback speed
Share post
Share post at current time

How to Have a More Equal Partnership: Gender Roles, Social Conditioning, Cognitive Labor, & Maternal Gatekeeping

Kate Mangino discusses gender parity within the household

Are women naturally more nurturing or are these roles simply the result of social conditioning? Any discussion revolving around a given gender’s “natural” propensity towards certain roles is guaranteed to quickly get heated. In her book, Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home, gender expert Kate Mangino makes the case for gender parity within households.

Biology or Social Conditioning?

Mangino argues that gender roles are largely the result of social conditioning but are often mistaken for biology because of how deeply ingrained they are. Women are routinely taught how to babysit and take care of the household while men are normally tasked with outdoor labor. But the work of women is usually more critical.

Miss a day of feeding the kids or pets, and everyone will take notice. Miss a day of mowing the lawn? Not so much. In other words, men are typically assigned intermittent, outdoor tasks while women usually manage routine, indoor tasks. By extrapolation, this division of labor means that men enjoy significantly more time to pursue hobbies, leisure, or continuing education.

Just how much more time? The disparity comes out to about 65/35, meaning women on average perform 65% of the labor in the home. Rather than redistribute responsibilities, many women — some feminists included — would prefer to maintain the status quo for the sake of efficiency.

“It’s just easier to keep things the way they are.” But prioritizing efficiency over parity perpetuates the stereotypical belief that household work is “women’s work.”

So what does an equal partnership look like in practice? Mangino defines an equal partnership as “equitable division of the physical and cognitive labor of a household.” And more equitable arrangements don’t just end up benefiting women, either. Men are more likely to experience the benefits of deeper bonds with their spouses and children when sharing household duties.

Invisible Woman

While physical tasks are relative straightforward — vacuuming, washing the dishes, or taking care of laundry — cognitive labor consists of anticipating the needs of others — planning for dinner, organizing your schedule to be able to pick the kids up from school. In other words, cognitive labor is project management, and this work is usually unnoticeable to the outside observer.

Women might perform cognitive labor during their daily commute to work, while taking a shower, or when lying awake in bed at night: planning meals, setting aside time for grocery shopping, when to begin prep to finish cooking dinner on time. This kind of anticipatory planning is invisible but vital to the smooth functioning of a household.

Since cognitive labor goes unseen, it is rarely recognized. Mangino even has a name for a household’s resident project manager — the Noticer. The Noticer performs the obvious household tasks like checking if the dishes are clean, reordering diapers, and taking note of when the dog needs grooming.

But the Noticer often performs lots of other little actions that make the home nicer like decorating the mantle place, buying holiday decorations, and organizing social events. Noticers make living spaces more warm and inviting and give meaning to the phrase hearth and home. Noticers demonstrate their love through details that provide feelings of comfort and connection.

Historically, noticing is a female-encoded task because girls are raised to prioritize social bonds while boys are raised to be utilitarian and solve problems. Due to the latter, Non-Noticers may view noticing work as superfluous. Then you have one person toiling thanklessly over noticing and another person frustrated at their partner’s waste of time and energy, a recipe for resentment.

Mangino recommends that Non-Noticers could start by showing more appreciation for noticing work and trying to participate, but Noticers could stand to do a lot less. Noticers tend to go overboard, and Mangino thinks that loosening the reins a bit could allow Noticers to redirect some energy towards leisure or non-work activities.

Mangino’s description of noticing behavior got me thinking about ask culture vs guess culture. In “ask culture,” requests can be freely made and refused without worrying about whether an ask is appropriate. In “guess culture,” one is expected to know whether a request is excessive.

I’d venture to guess that women are more likely to be raised as guessers (who anticipate the needs of others) while men are usually taught to be askers. A blog post on LessWrong offers a commonly encountered hypothetical discussion:

Husband: “Could you iron my shirt? I have a meeting today.”

Wife: “Can’t you see I’m packing lunches and I’m not even dressed yet? You’re so insensitive!”

Husband: “But I just asked. You could have just said no if you were too busy — you don’t have to yell at me!”

Wife: “But you should pay enough attention to me to know when you shouldn’t ask!”

Sometimes individual people are more oriented towards asking or guessing, but the divide is cultural as well. Western cultures are typically more “ask-based” while immigrant cultures are commonly “guess-based.” Navigating these differences can sometimes be daunting.

Raising Standards, Lowering Standards

How can couples move past the friction of cognitive overload that often characterizes opposite-sex relationships? Mangino says that partners should aim to reach a compromise about a shared set of standards as a couple. Decide ahead of time how many nights you intend to eat home-cooked meals together. Figure out how often you’re willing to outsource meal prep.

The idea of being the partner who has to raise their standards can be a bit demeaning. But to say that men simply need to step up is a gross oversimplification that ignores other unsettling gender-normative behaviors like maternal gatekeeping — a mother’s beliefs about how much other people (father, in-laws, grandparents, nannies, babysitters) should be involved in her children’s lives.

Mangino points to research involving opposite-sex couples that had achieved gender parity prior to having children. After their first child, the father’s share of housework declined by an average of 10 hours per week, meaning men performed far fewer hours than before.

Maternal gatekeeping often stems from a deeply internalized belief that a woman’s value lies in her ability to successfully carry out domestic duties and care for her family. A mother’s tendency to reject her partner’s offers to help could then stem from a desire to avoid judgment from family, peers, or society at large, who, in her mind, may question her competence in running a household.

Perfectionism may play a role in the decision to run the household independently. Men are typically not raised to have a painstaking eye for detail, so women often opt to handle tasks themselves rather than risk ridicule at the hands of scrutinizing eyes. If a woman tells her partner to take a backseat often enough, he will eventually succumb to her wishes and resign himself to the role of breadwinner.

In this manner, both parties sometimes perpetuate this helper-manager dynamic between father and mother. Being equal partners means that men need to assume more responsibility, but women also need to create space to allow their significant others to step into more active roles.

As you might expect, same-sex couples are much more likely to model gender parity, largely because the LGBTQIA community commonly grapple with gender identity in a way that heterosexual individuals take for granted.

Gender Parity at Work

“All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” reads the opening line of the classic novel Anna Karenina. But Mangino’s research contradicts Tolstoy’s oft-quoted aphorism. She found 40 men from 15 U.S. states and three Canadian provinces who defied normal gender role expectations, a group she termed the EP40 in reference to “equal partners.”

Surprisingly, this group of people didn’t share many obvious commonalities. About a quarter came from single-parent households, more than half felt ostracized growing up, and 38 were raised in households that adhered to traditional gender roles. Five men were in same-sex relationships and 35 were in different-sex relationships.

Collectively, the men represented Black, Afro-Caribbean, Latino, Asian American, African, Native American, White, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Bahai, and non-religious identities. The men came from rural, suburban, and urban areas and had varying levels of education. Some earned a salary while others received an hourly wage.

But no single thread tied all these men together. Each had a unique background. At first, Magino was discouraged by the inability to ascribe an overarching quality to all these people, but upon reconsidering, she felt reassured. If there is no one right way to achieve gender equality in a household, that implies that anyone from any kind of background can do it.

Mangino’s number one takeaway is the importance of communication, but not just any kind of communication. Coordinating logistics is obviously important, but couples that modeled gender parity were also apt to also discuss gender and values. Moreover, the willingness to bring up issues when they surface, work on troubleshooting them, and actively listen were crucial.

In Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love, psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amir Levine writes:

“It’s important to remember that even with effective communication, some problems won’t be solved immediately. What’s vital is your partner’s response — whether he or she is concerned about your well-being, has your best interests in mind, and is willing to work on things.”

Both sides need to be receptive in order to have a productive conversation. Women may feel overburdened, but men may feel pressured to provide security and stability. Effective communication means being in tune with each other’s emotions and learning about each other’s triggers.

Mangino mentions that unlearning gender norms shouldn’t feel like a cumbersome exercise. Redistributing responsibilities doesn’t need to require tons of extra hours to implement. Simply changing the context of our everyday, mundane conversations can be impetus enough for change. But we need to actively seek out these opportunities to engage; we have to recognize the entry points.

A Path Forward

A great springboard to start the discussion is, “What kind of household did you grow up in, and is that something you want to emulate in our relationship?” After a time of modeling this behavior, younger generations can redraft their own ideas about gender parity.

Mangino offers a list of 10 questions for couples who are just starting a relationship: Are you comfortable telling each other that you’ve done an invisible task? How important do you think saying thank you is when it comes to housework?

But one question in particular is especially important to address: Do we think that the person who earns more money doesn’t have to do as much in the home? Or do we think the person who works more hours doesn’t have to do as much in the home?

Mangino points out that there is no one right answer to this question, but getting on the same page about your beliefs and expectations can save you a lot of trouble in the long run. The right answer for you is whatever you and your partner agree on.

The wage gap for women makes this issue an especially pressing one since adhering to traditional gender roles tends to harm women’s chances for economic opportunity. Adding to a woman’s household labor prevents her from accomplishing more professionally, which equates to earning less and performing more labor at home as a function of her status as the lower wage earner.

For couples who have already been together for a long time, starting the discussion could be tricky when behaviors are already so deeply entrenched. Mangino recommends first focusing on gender norms rather than individual behaviors when initiating conversation so as not to assign blame to either party.

Second, changing behaviors is easier when accompanied by another life change such as moving homes, switching jobs, caring for a parent, or getting a pet. Use your changing landscape to ease the transition into different gender roles and expectations. This approach can help you set yourself up for success.

If you’d like to support the show, you can become a paid subscriber! The show’s theme music, “New Beginnings” by Joshua Kaye, was provided courtesy of Syfonix. This episode was edited using Descript. Some links are affiliate and help support my mission to share actionable self-development insights with the general public at no additional cost to you. Thank you!

1 Comment
Evolving with Nita Jain
Evolving with Nita Jain: Health | Science | Self-Development
Whether it's a workout protocol, productivity routine, or mindfulness practice, Nita Jain shares actionable insights designed to help listeners optimize their lives and become their best selves. Topics covered include science, psychology, philosophy, health, fitness, longevity, entrepreneurship, and everything in between. The show aims to be interdisciplinary, encourage forward thinking, and approach subject matter in a balanced way.