Why we keep talking about housework when we’re trying to prevent family violence

When talking about the things we can all do to prevent violence against women, a topic that regularly comes up is sharing the housework. In the first instance, it can sound like it’s not enough; like it won’t really fix anything, or it’s not the same as the “crisis of male violence in Australia”.  

So why do we keep bringing it up? The drivers of this violence are many, wide-reaching, deeply ingrained behaviours, assumptions and systems that make up the culture we live in. They include harmful rules about gender roles, and limits to women’s decision-making in the home and in public life. It’s these conditions that allow violence to occur.

Not sharing the housework and mental load isn’t – on its own – a sign of an abusive relationship. But it can be a symptom of deeper assumptions about whose time is more valuable and who “serves” the relationship versus who “provides” in it. These aren’t roles that need to be determined by your gender.  

Housework and harmful gender stereotyping

The assumption that women are responsible for housework and care tasks – and the opposite assumption that men aren’t good at or interested in them – is one of the most widespread examples of rigid gender stereotyping in Australia today.  

It’s not just an assumption on an individual household level, either – it includes broader things in society like the way cleaning products are marketed, the kinds of work we do outside the home, which parent the school calls when a child is sick, the types of content the algorithm shows us on social media, the expectations we have for what skills our children should learn, and more. Because they are seen as “innate” skills – or not seen at all (read about invisible labour below) – they are often not valued. This also affects the value of feminised industries, and how people in those roles are paid.  

Upholding assumptions like this are dangerous; research shows us people who believe one harmful gender stereotype are likely to believe others – like “women should be submissive to men” or “men should have the final say in their relationships.” These are the harmful ideas that underpin violence against women. 

Housework and limits to women's independence

When we uphold the assumption (consciously or unconsciously) that housework is a woman’s responsibility – or that she’s magically “just better at it”, so she should manage it – we limit her independence.  

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data shows a stark contrast in the time men and women each commit to housework, childcare and other domestic activities each day. This then has a direct effect on the amount of time women can commit to paid work (or education) and leisure time – AKA the capacity for independence. That also affects long-term independence by reducing potential superannuation contributions, or the financial ability to leave a relationship if needed.  

When coerced or pressured into not working to prioritise household management, this even becomes a form of financial abuse

Invisible labour and the mental load

Even in relationships and households where everyone contributes to physical housework, many women feel the pressure of the “mental load” – the planning, organising, noticing and anticipating associated with managing households and families. All the background of daily life like coordinating children’s academic, extracurricular and social lives, or logistics of cultural holidays, or making sure there’s enough toilet paper, or being the one who knows where spare batteries are.  

These are things that aren’t always as obvious, but they can tip the load.  

None of these need to be the burden of one person – yet it’s the reality for many households.

So how can you change the way you share housework when you’re already in a routine? 

It starts with a conversation!  

It can be easier to have a tool like Fair Play or a family chores app to guide the conversation, rather than one person taking on the emotional labour of leading the change. (Working out who will be “the captain” of each task is another way some families divide the load.)

You can even read this article together first, if it helps explain where you’re coming from.  

Plan in advance to come to the conversation at a time when you’re both feeling relaxed and cooperative – trying to find a solution in a moment when you’re frustrated by the inequality won’t be productive.  

Don’t think of the conversation as a one-off: make time together to review and swap tasks if you want or need.

Three more things to keep in mind

  1. Consider how frequently these tasks occur, and how that might contribute to the mental load. For example, home maintenance jobs like cleaning the gutters or replacing air conditioner filters are periodic. While they might require some pre-planning to order parts, they can be reasonably put off for a time if something else comes up, and once they are done they’re done for a relatively long amount of time. You might have a strong sense of satisfaction after finishing.  

    Compare that to daily responsibilities like cooking or laundry. They can’t reasonably be put off for a more convenient time, and require constant planning/preparation. They are ongoing – as soon as one meal is finished, the countdown to the next begins – so more likely to wear a person down, instead of giving them a sense of accomplishment. 
  2. Even if an “uneven” division of labour really is what works best for your personal relationship, acknowledging and appreciating the amount of “invisible labour” that goes into making your shared lifestyle possible is an important step in making everyone feel valued and respected. 
  3. Watch how the division of invisible labour carries over to relationships with housemates, friendship groups, family gatherings, workplaces, sports clubs, community organisations, etc. These all have the opportunity to make our society one where more people can be safe, equal and respected.