The Happiness Gender Gap, or, On Dusty Floors

Here I am, discussing happiness again. Do you think speaking of happiness serves as a protective measure against the doldrums of winter? Is this a positive way to handle the fact that I got hailed on, then rained on, then snowed on, then hailed on--all within a few hours, this morning?

Nice try, but this New York Times article ("He’s Happier, She’s Less So"), from late September, made me sad, not happy. It's about the "growing happiness gap between men and women."

I quote:

Mr. Krueger, analyzing time-use studies over the last four decades, has found an even starker pattern. Since the 1960s, men have gradually cut back on activities they find unpleasant. They now work less and relax more.

Over the same span, women have replaced housework with paid work — and, as a result, are spending almost as much time doing things they don’t enjoy as in the past. Forty years ago, a typical woman spent about 23 hours a week in an activity considered unpleasant, or 40 more minutes than a typical man. Today, with men working less, the gap is 90 minutes.

[snip] What has changed — and what seems to be the most likely explanation for the happiness trends — is that women now have a much longer to-do list than they once did (including helping their aging parents). They can’t possibly get it all done, and many end up feeling as if they are somehow falling short.

Mr. Krueger’s data, for instance, shows that the average time devoted to dusting has fallen significantly in recent decades. There haven’t been any dust-related technological breakthroughs, so houses are probably just dirtier than they used to be. I imagine that the new American dustiness affects women’s happiness more than men’s.

Yes, I do think that dusty floors and shmutzy counter-tops affect my happiness more than they affect that of my male peers. The level of cleanliness and lack of clutter that I would need, in my apartment, to really be happy with it/my life, is basically unattainable without, say, cleaning a little bit every day. I am currently not willing to do that, even though doing that might increase my happiness. It would also decrease the amount of time that I could devote to eating dinner, blogging, or reading the paper. It's a tough balance.

[snip] A big reason that women reported being happier three decades ago — despite far more discrimination — is probably that they had narrower ambitions, Ms. Stevenson says. Many compared themselves only to other women, rather than to men as well. This doesn’t mean they were better off back then.

But it does show just how incomplete the gender revolution has been. Although women have flooded into the work force, American society hasn’t fully come to grips with the change. The United States still doesn’t have universal preschool, and, in contrast to other industrialized countries, there is no guaranteed paid leave for new parents.

This brief article is but one in a very, very long line of newspaper and magazine articles that reiterates the idea that "No, women really can't have it all."

I have become more and more convinced that this is true. I don't think that this makes me a post-feminist or a non-feminist, or is a backlash against the "women can have it all" ethos of the second wave feminists. It's more of a statement of reality than of idealism, to me.

I think I first started feeling this way when I was 18 and spending a year studying in Israel, comparing my experiences in yeshiva to those of my male peers. Expectations of and by women in terms of Jewish learning and so many other things are different than expectations of and by men, and these differences, as far as I can tell, are almost exclusively to women's disadvantage.

Perhaps I will write more on this at another time.


HDS said...

To what do you attribute the value difference which you and the article's author seem to take for granted, that women are more bothered by dust and untidiness than men? Is it an innate genetic difference, or is it that today's men and women are a product of the role models and societal attitudes with which they were raised, who and which presumably date to the "earlier times" part of the study. Assuming women are not leaving the workplace anytime soon - nor would we want them to - women of tomorrow can look forward to happier, if dirtier, times to come, but only if their role models of today find healthful ways to cope with their unattainable to-do lists. If their role models instead self-combust with anxiety and guilt, G-d help us all.

mother in israel said...

I found the last line of your post interesting. Women have the opportunity to learn a much wider variety of topics than men, not just gemara. Did you feel that the high-level women's learning was still on a lower level than men's? I'll be looking for your comments

HDS, as a mother, I realized at some point that having a clean home and good food is important for health and happiness. I would argue that feminism has done us a disservice by over-emphasizing the importance of career and devaluing homemaking. I don't mean that we need to obsess about a little dust, but that homemaking needs to have a place in our lives.

ALG said...

Thank you to both of you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments.

HDS, I think that women may be wired to notice certain details more than men do. One might call it the "finding things in the fridge" gender difference. As with any generality about gender, there are, of course exceptions. Maybe I am just a particularly detail-oriented woman who often encounters non-detail-oriented men, but this is my general perception.

My own feelings about dust and general dirtiness exist on two levels: (1) my particular comfort with the cleanliness of my living environment and (2) "What will people think?" Level (1) has a much higher level of tolerance for dust and clutter than level (2), except for on my white kitchen counters and stovetop, on which shmutz bothers me immensely whether anyone else is around to see it or not. I think that men and women overlap on the first level but that women bear the brunt of the second level. I don't think men worry as much about meeting others' homemaking standards. I have noticed (more with cooking than cleaning), that men will prepare a Shabbat meal consisting of challah, wine, salad, protein, and starch, and women will make a gazillion things. It's the pressure to make a gazillion things that kills hosting for me. That, and the feeling that the bathroom MUST be spotless before anyone but my roommate can see it. It's entirely possible that this is just me and my anxiety-prone self, but the NYT article made me think, "Aha! It's not just me that's made less happy by dustiness!"

Note that I do NOT think this means that men should be excused from dusting or cleaning the homes that they share with women--just that they may need a schedule or a reminder, whereas many women will be unable to stand the dirt before someone else needs to point it out to them. I read a book a little while ago, called Bastard on the Couch, that, notwithstanding its mildly profane title, was instrumental in changing the ways that I think about some gender divides and differences.

mother in Israel, first of all, I agree with you that homemaking has been devalued for everyone--men and women--in our society in favor of career.

About Jewish learning--this is a post in and of itself, but I will start off here. I am not moved by the argument that women have the opportunity to learn a much wider variety of topics than men. Women lose out in a serious way in learning Gemara and halacha, due to different cultural expectations, and possibly biological realities, for women. This is not made up for their access to superior instructors in Tanach [Bible] and machshava [Jewish thought or theology]. (Note that I did have a few excellent parshanut and machshava [theology] teachers at the yeshiva I attended.)

Why? Because I think that if you have the Hebrew skills and a well-functioning mind, you can become quite skilled in Tanach and machshava without too much help. And, frankly, because not being adept at Gemara and halacha shuts women out of the central discussions in observant Jewish life today, and leaves women entirely dependent on men for halachic leadership, and the reverse is not true for men, even if they end up with an inferior knowledge of Sefer Ovadiah and Rav Kook's views on teshuva.

Aside from that general observation, I have a natural inclination towards mishna/gemara/halacha over Tanach or machshava, the same way I preferred classes on gender theory, the economics of health care, and legal issues in domestic violence over literature, philosophy, and art history classes in college. When I got to Israel, I found out that we had gemara three times a week, on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, which meant that between Weds. and Mon., we had four days in which to forget the intricacies of whichever sugya we were studying. Two steps forward, one step back, just for scheduling reasons, because we needed Sunday and Thursday mornings for Nach and machshava. (We spent afternoons on halacha, Jewish history, and Chumash.) When I asked, on behalf of myself and a few other students, if we could have a five-morning-a-week Gemara program (three shiurim a week would have been fine, but I wanted them spread out more, with more chavruta time), I was told that the world wasn't ready for women to learn Gemara five days a week. (This was 1998, in case that helps you share my frustration. And maybe things have changed for the better in general since then, although I hear that they have not at this particular institution.) In the end, I skipped Nach and machshava and found someone else to learn a different part of our masechta with.

However, it was very difficult to do this alone, in a mostly-empty beit midrash. When I compared this to my friends who were at Yeshivat Har Etzion, HaKotel, Kerem BYavneh, Shaalvim, or Mevaseret, it was clear that the differences between our batei midrash were enormous. There was an advanced study program for women, but many (all?) of the women were married to men who were learning full-time, so they often learned half-time and worked half-time, and were thus only around for their own studies, never sitting and learning in the beit midrash in a way that they could be interrupted to ask for some minor assistance. Also, many of them were not devoting years to study as their male counterparts did, thus rendering them not-so-much-more-advanced than I, in the top gemara shiur available to students in the post-high school program. There were kollel guys and shana vav hesder guys and myriad men in between shana-aleph-straight-off-the-coed- yeshiva-high-school-boat and shana vav students. (Is there shana zayin? I forget.)

It was frustrating to know that I had only one shiur option at my level. There were multiple shiurim for my male peers to choose from at their hesder yeshivot, and there was a clear path towards higher levels of learning. Not so for me. When I was unable to find a chavruah in the shiur I was in, I moved down to a lower shiur, where I was less challenged, because that was my only option. I learned a LOT--possibly more than I was learning in the high shiur--but the fact that I had so few choices was directly tied to my XXs.

Furthermore, many of the women in the advanced program either had small children or were gestating during the year that I was there, and once their kids were born, or while they were experiencing morning sickness, they were there even less than usual. Understandable, of course, from a biological perspective, but frustrating for someone looking for both "learning role models" and for the kind of assistance that I think is more common in a beit midrash populated by men.

Finally, the RAMim usually lived not-near-yeshiva, so they were only at yeshiva to teach. Not in the beit midrash preparing for shiur, not around for guidance.

In addition to my propensity towards legal wrangling and my love of the beit midrash as a place of study, I am not someone who learns well by attending a lecture, although we had some amazing classroom teachers. I need to be actively engaged--not just robotically taking notes--to retain knowledge. I always preferred to have chavrutah and shiur, with more time spent b'chavrutah. But the system wasn't really set up for this kind of study. While I did learn quite a bit on my own or with a chavrutah, I felt that I was fighting to be allowed to do this.

I don't know how much of my feelings about my year in Israel can be attributed to the fact that I was 18 (aka I thought I knew everything) and went into my year in Israel having received the message in high school that women could learn as much as and as well as men, and that the way to rectify various halachic issues that women faced was to learn gemara and halacha and to join the conversation that spanned generations and from which women had traditionally been excluded. I was sort of a firebrand. Maybe I was crazy, I don't know. All I wanted to do was learn--over breakfast and lunch, if not dinner--and I felt like my desire to learn was not taken seriously, the institution was not set up to facilitate my study, and, in the end, I got a vastly inferior education to those of my male peers at the yeshivot listed above (and others).

I saw what the future held for me, if I persisted seeking out the kind of study that I loved--I could be one of those women, learning half-time while having kids and working half-time, and never get very far. It didn't seem worth it to me to learn Gemara at all unless I could really delve into it--it's not something that's very conducive to study for an hour or two a week, which was realistically what I had in college between a full course load and a part-time job. So I stopped learning for years. After college, I started again.

I hope to be able to spend a year learning again at some point in the future. Because, you know, here I am, 28, with no learning husband to support and no little ones to gestate.

ALG said...

More on women learning Torah, in case you're interested, here.

Also, a rather extensive post related to some of this learning for women stuff can be found here.

Deborah Grayson Riegel, Head Coach, My Jewish Coach.com said...

I often turn to Covey's matrix of Urgent and Important activities when I feel myself getting anxious about the myriad responsibilities of motherhood, marriage, homemaking and work that I face.

Basically, every task or goal needs to fall into one of 4 categories:
1) Urgent and Important
2) Urgent and not Important
3) Important and not Urgent
4) Not Urgent and Not Important

Category 1 activities get my immediately attention -- and cleaning when Shabbos guests are on the way over falls into that one. Making sure my daughter Sophie has one of the three t-shirts she is willing to wear clean and ready feels like Category 2 from MY perspective -- but is Category 1 from hers. Category 4 I get rid of or delegate. And Category 3 -- Not Urgent but Important -- is where I have to make a committed effort to spend more time. Category 3 things are reading an extra story to my kids, marketing projects for my business, etc. And you know what? Cleaning often winds up getting short shrift in my house so that I can do more Category 1, 2 and especially 3 stuff done!

mother in israel said...

I hear you loud and clear. I hope you can find what you are looking for.

ALG said...

Thank you! Me, too! (In oh so many ways.)

HDS said...

Mother in Israel, Although clearly our mental health and ensuring the mental health of our children is far more important than obsessing about dust, it is certainly possible to pass along a healthy cleanliness and homemaking trait to our kids without making them OCD. It's just that given that there isn't time for everything, the author never considered that women might have additional anxiety about their jobs because of the time they were locked in to cleaning.

alg, I wasn't questioning the existance of a gender difference on this issue, but rather exploring the origin of the difference. Is the "finding things in the fridge" or "pressure to make a gazillion things" difference genetic or learned/modeled?

If the "pressure to make a gazillion things" or "the feeling that the bathroom must be spotless" are at all overboard, adding needless stress or killing hosting, then they aren't all that useful. We can hope that, genetic or learned, we'll evolve out of them as a species, not that this helps you any.

ALG said...

HDS, when I used the phrase "may be wired," in "I think that women may be wired to notice certain details more than men do," I meant that to be understood as an innate genetic difference, even though I just realized that one can be wired by genetics or by early socialization. Sorry for the lack of clarity and thank you for asking again. I heard a fantastic lecture a week ago that discussed to what extent our millions of interactions with the world between the ages of 0 and 2 wire up our brains.

I do believe that women may be genetically more inclined to notice certain kinds of details that men don't. I have no real proof of this, though, and I think that a lot of other more specific differences, such as how many dishes one must prepare for a Shabbat meal, are socially and communally dictated rather than innately genetic. It was only very recently in our evolutionary history that we had the luxury of having two kinds of chicken and three kinds of kugel at a typical Shabbat meal!

I think that the original article about the happiness gap between men and women wasn't saying that women have additional anxiety about their jobs because of the time that they spend housecleaning, but that women are housecleaning less than their mothers did because they are working so many hours outside the house, and that the resulting increase in dust makes more of a difference to the happiness of women than it does to the happiness of men. The way to close that gender gap would be for men to take up some dusting or for women to care about dustiness less.

Deborah Grayson Riegel, thank you for sharing your list (or Covey's) with us. I definitely know that I have trouble prioritizing (at both work and home), so I think that such a system might stop me in my tracks (ack! how do I figure out what is urgent and/or important and what isn't?) more than it helps me. But maybe practicing prioritizing will help me learn to be better at it.

Sh said...

alg, you wrote:
"The way to close that gender gap would be for men to take up some dusting or for women to care about dustiness less."
but there is a third option you are ignoring - eliminating the dust more efficiently.
if women really are that unhappy about the dust, i'm sure some commercial entrepeneur will be convinced to work on lowering the costsor fnding some new means of cleaning (i dont mean a better spray or cloth, but somthing along a cleaning robot like those little robo-vacum-cleanrs.
where there is need, there is cash to be made.

as to classing things, try running some machine learning algorithems (ML) on your life for a while and youll get a clear (but somewhat odd) mathematicall definition for the four categories :)
(i did that as part of a course reacently and the process was intresting)

Sh said...

alg, i completely agree with the statement of "not moved by the argument that women have the opportunity to learn a much wider variety of topics than men"
but i dont agree with the reason - halacha and machshava are not supposed to be easier or less relevent - they are simply made so by the way modern yeshivot treat gemara and halacha in an out of scale and angle way.

our live should idealy be shaped by machshava just as much or even more then they are by halacha, which should be derived and guided by the values from machshava or tanach instead of the other way around.

the solution isnt getting women stuck into the same way of learning that men currently use with all of it's drawbacks, but finding a better way of studying for both genders.


it's intresting that the same "variety" tool you point at over the gender gap is also used in most of the hesder eshivot as a gap between the isreali and american programs (who have a much more varied scheduale).


actually, i know severel women who have accomplished somthing similar to what you describe. most of them are married to guys in my shuir from yeshiva who left the torah world for hi-tech, and at the same time their wives went from the part time study model you mentioned to a full time torah studying ascheduale (though the pregnancy and kids interference are still there).

BZ said...

Sh writes:
most of them are married to guys in my shuir from yeshiva who left the torah world for hi-tech

Why does this have to be "leaving the torah world"?

Sh said...

to bz, í didnt say it has have to be that way, i was just pointing at the examples i know of personally.

though now that i think about, in a lot of the cases i know of that guys who stayed in the yeshiva and married girls who plan on having a torah career it seems that his torah got prioritzed.