Avoiding the housework:
Domestic Labour and Gender in Group Living Contexts


Kristin Natalier


It is often claimed that relationship forms and expectations have changed in late modernity. To date, these possibilities have most usually been studied with regard to cohabiting sexual partners. However there are other domestic sites in which relationships are negotiated. This paper describes one of these: shared household living. It uses qualitative data to trace the intersection of gender and housework. In an echo of traditional ‘wifely’ behaviour, female share householders use domestic labour to express and make sense of relationships in the household. In contrast, men deny any relationship between intimacy and housework. These diverging interpretations imply that gendered understandings domestic practices are not easily avoided even in contexts that suggest a freedom to negotiate and establish new practices and interpretations.

Key words: Gender, housework, shared households


Diversity, contingency and negotiation have become key words in sociological explorations of late modernity. We are responsible for creating our biographies, reflexively choosing from multiple options and life paths. The significance and altering nature of personal relationships are part of these transformations. In the words of Anthony Giddens (1992:8), broader social changes require ‘everyday social experiments’ in our lives. This is evident, in part, in people’s movement between relationships and household forms, and in the increasing visibility of once unacceptable or marginal types of intimacy. But are the changes in these structures mirrored in changes in the relevance and performance of gender? This paper explores these possibilities through a discussion of the division of domestic labour among young people living in shared households.

Sociologists’ sensitivity to the conceptual and theoretical benefits of studying alternatives to the heterosexual nuclear family is a relatively recent phenomenon. It has revealed itself most consistently in work that studies relationship and householding patterns among gay and lesbian couples and ‘families of choice’ (Weston 1991, Stacey 2004). However, another living arrangement is coming to play an important role in popular imagination and in people’s actual housing histories: shared households (also called group living), in which a group of people unrelated by kinship or sexual ties live together and pool their resources. In the U.K., a high proportion of people are living with peers at some point in their early housing careers (Bell and Jones 1999 cited in Heath 1999), a pattern that is reflected in the USA (Thornton et al. 1993, Goldscheider et al. 1993). In Australia, the proportion of 20-24 year olds living in shared households doubled in the period 1980-2000 (Burke et al. 2002; see Heath 2004 for similar figures in the UK). Shared housing is an empirically significant element in contemporary lives.

For sociologists, shared households are relevant beyond their growing presence as an accommodation option. Studies of shared households are part of an emerging project that argues for a greater recognition and empirical understanding of new possibilities for intimacy. As Sasha Roseneil and Shelley Budgeon (2004) have pointed out, care, love and trust are not confined to families – they can be definitive characteristics of friendship and other social networks. This is true of shared households. Sue Heath and Elizabeth Kenyon (Heath 1999, 2004 Heath and Kenyon 2001, Kenyon and Heath 2001) have shown that living with peers can create connections that are intimate, supportive and emotionally significant (Heath and Kenyon 2001, Kenyon and Heath 2001). These insights are important, but they do not engage with another reality of group living: these intimate relationships are played out in households, with all of the attendant domestic activities. Friendships are developed alongside negotiations over who scrubs the toilets and when the dishes should be washed. This dimension, mundane and inescapable, has not been subject to systematic research and analysis. Thus, the implications of living in late modernity can only be partially appreciated.

This paper aims to deepen our knowledge of the negotiations within non-traditional, non-familial households. It explores the reshaping of domestic relationships, intimacy and their implications for gender enactments through housework in the context of group living. In the course of analysis, it becomes evident that the seemingly non-gendered organisation of housework is linked to surprisingly traditional enactments of masculinity and femininity. To extrapolate upon these ideas, the paper is structured in the following way. The next section introduces West and Zimmerman’s (1987)‘doing gender’ approach, which informs the analysis of gendered domestic practices. It also presents data on the division of domestic labour in married and cohabiting relationships, providing a point of comparison with shared households. After a brief description of the sample and methods of data collection and analysis, the discussion moves to consider the meaning and conduct of gender identities in group living, as they are expressed through domestic labour.

Housework and the Enactment of Gender

Housework has long been recognised as a key element in the performance of femininities, masculinities, and oppression. In light of this, shared households are theoretically fertile sites in which to investigate the emergence of new gendered enactments in late modernity. Group living incorporates many of the same domestic practices as other household types, but with friendship as the basis of relationships, entrenched domestic identities (for example, husband, wife, mother or father) are not directly relevant. It may be that traditional gendered behaviours and power relations are replaced by new and non-exploitative ways of living. Do shared households provide evidence of the “wholesale democratising of the interpersonal domain” (Giddens 1992:3)?

The ‘doing gender’ approach provides a framework for pursuing the question. Drawing on the symbolic interactionist tradition, Candace West and Don Zimmerman (1987) argue that gender is not a set of pre-existing, discrete characteristics that we carry with us into different contexts. Gender is a performance and arises through our dealings with others. West and Zimmerman describe these displays as “accountable”- individuals are aware that others are judging their actions with reference to the assumed inherent femininity or masculinity of the actor, and order their behaviour accordingly. Interaction is unavoidable – we cannot stand apart from doing gender, and so everyday, mundane activities are important in articulating our gendered selves.

Relationships of power and advantage are frequently reproduced through doing gender (Berk 1985, West and Zimmerman 1987). The ascribed differences between men and women legitimate continuing inequalities and the structures that support and are dependent on them. However, when people enact gender they need not be deliberately pursuing and entrenching power disparities. By behaving in “appropriate ways” men’s interests are fulfilled and those of women are sidelined.

Gender enactments are referenced to existing ideologies but they have the potential to change them. The constant enactment of gender, the need perform in every interaction leads to its institutionalisation. However, the performance includes within it a negotiation with others, rather than a simple presentation to a distant audience. This means that that the possibility for developing new expressions of gender is always incorporated in our interactions. In other words, doing gender contributes to both stable and evolving expectations of what is appropriate. This in turn contributes to multiple masculinities and femininities, so that definitions of ‘appropriate’ may alter according to different social contexts.

Sarah Fenstermaker Berk (1985:205) sums up the connection between gender and housework when she writes, “the ‘shoulds’ of gender ideals are fused with the ‘musts’ of efficient household production”. However the extent to which contributing to housework reaffirms or alters masculinity and femininity is contested. In terms of practice, the gap between married men’s and women’s contributions is slowly closing – men are doing a little more than they once did and women are doing less (Baxter 2002:420). In terms of discourse and images, Anthony McMahon (1999) has pointed to the rise of new definitions of masculinity that celebrate men’s involvement in the home. We also know that patterns alter according to the household type: in heterosexual de facto relationships, for example, women do not do as much as their married counterparts (Scott and Spitze 1994). From their studies, South and Spitze have concluded that while both are gendered, the identities of ‘wife’ and ‘girlfriend’ or ‘de facto’ partner are enacted through housework in different ways (Scott and Spitze 1994). These conclusions remind us that performances change over time and in different contexts.

Other evidence suggests that gender enactments are not often dramatically new, despite some surface changes. There have been some changes in men’s participation but women still do the majority of the housework (Baxter 2002). Men and women also interpret tasks in conformity with traditional definitions. Women retain primary responsibility for the completion of tasks (Dempsey 2000), and their paid employment and leisure opportunities are often marginalized by domestic demands (Hochschild 1989). Typically, men continue to fulfil the role of helper and their work and leisure time are prioritised above domestic labour commitments (Dempsey 1988). In short, men opt in to housework and women opt out, with greater constraints. Overwhelmingly, housework is still women’s work.

People’s interpretation of housework also remains gendered. Women are more likely to invest an emotional significance in their labour, using it to express and interpret their intimate relationships. They often describe their efforts as showing love for their families, so that “caring for” becomes a way of “caring about” (DeVault 1991). Men’s failure to contribute to the housework can be read as a commentary on the relationship, just as their efforts may be seen to be ‘gifts of love’ (Thagaard 1997). Conversely, men are not likely to attach any deeper meaning to their lack of involvement in the domestic realm (Dempsey 1997:55). In all, the findings presented above suggest that ongoing gender enactments may generate change but this is often piecemeal and holds within it the echoes of more traditional ways of thinking about and doing domestic labour.

The Study

The data for this paper were generated through interviews with eleven mixed sex share households (seventeen men and twenty-one women) located in an Australian capital city. The participants were identified through snowball sampling, guided by the needs of theoretical sampling. The households ranged in size from two to five people. The mean age of the participants was twenty-four years, with an age range of eighteen to thirty one years. The people in this sample were all white. A majority of respondents were heterosexual, but the sample also includes three women who identify as bi-sexual. The group is marked by a high level of formal schooling – twenty six people had completed or were completing at least one year of post-secondary education, and the other twelve had completed secondary school. The sample did not only include ’happy’ households – many people reported currents of resentment and dissatisfaction.

Interviews with each householder were conducted separately. This minimised any tensions that might be generated through openly expressing dissatisfaction, and limited the possibility that members would collude in protecting the image of a happy home (Daly 1992). Interviews ranged from thirty minutes to over two hours long. The discussions were semi-structured and in-depth. Broadly speaking, the foci of the interview process were two-fold: to investigate the division of domestic labour (practices and negotiations); and to gain an understanding of the meanings householders associate with these processes (expectations, emotions and interpretations). A simple accounting of who did what, when and how often would not provide a picture of the complexities of gender and housework in share households. Interviewing was ultimately a recursive process shaped by the interviewer and those taking part in the study. When participants directed the interviews I was able to develop a sense of what they experienced as the significant aspects of their share housing experiences.

Every discussion was taped. The initial decision to do so was made with some trepidation. Taping more obviously formalises the interaction as an interview rather than discussion, and can encourage restraint as participants become aware that their comments may be later revisited. However the interview process was recursive and it would be analytically unsound to apply my own emphasis and expectations of relevance upon the data as I gathered it through, for example, note taking at the time of discussion. In fact, the focus changed over the course of the study, becoming increasingly more interpretive. By taping I was able to revisit earlier interviews and re-read the significance of what previously seemed to be ‘marginal’ answers, as well as have access to precisely what people said and the ways in which they said it.

Interviews were transcribed and analysed by the researcher. Doing the transcriptions myself ensured a familiarity of the data and the context, nuances and tone of the participants’ statements. Analysis – and the study as a whole – was informed by an interpretivist approach. Through analysis I sought to explain housework and gender in ways that would make sense to the participants. As a sociologist I adopted a critical stance towards people’s accounts and interpretations. This approach recognised the validity participants’ common sense claims and their usefulness as analytic tools, while allowing the development of a considered and systematic account of gender and housework that extended beyond the experiences of individuals.

The snowball sample and the small number of households have lead to a somewhat homogenous group. This limitation has two significant implications. First, while the paper presents a strong indication that share householding practices and attitudes are gendered, it cannot describe the extent to which the meanings of housework and the significance of share household intimacy may differ according to other social positions. Second, in common with most small-scale qualitative work, are suggestive and not necessarily definitive of wider patterns. The upcoming findings and conclusions must be read with this caveat.


The following discussion has three foci. First, it outlines how people do and avoid domestic labour. Second, it describes the ways in which housework can be interpreted as an expression of care, and how these beliefs point to remarkably and counter-intuitively traditional gender enactments. In the final part of the section, I move to consider the possibilities for negotiation and change in the ways people do housework and do gender.

Doing and Avoiding the Housework

The following tasks were undertaken in the majority of households in the week before the interview: tidying, vacuuming or sweeping common areas, cooking the evening meal, washing up and cleaning the kitchen, cleaning the bathroom and toilet, and organising the payment of bills. Housemates do not cook breakfast or lunch for each other (this study follows a definition of housework as tasks done to the benefit of others and not simply the self – see VanEvery 1997). No-one had done any outdoor work in the past week, nor did anyone complete car or general household maintenance, and people drew a blank when asked about emptying the garbage bins.

Deeper insight is gained when we consider how tasks are managed. A cleaning roster was instituted in two of the eleven households, but only one group actually conforms to it. In the other households, people hold only loose expectations as to who will do what, and when: “At the moment, housework happens when someone thinks, ‘It must be my turn’” (Deborah). Shopping for groceries is not routine: in seven of the ten households people buy their own ingredients but share or take others’ when the need arises; two groups systematically pool food; and in the remaining household one woman shops and cooks for herself while the other four people divide their labour and resources. In terms of cooking, the evening meal is the most significant of the day. It is usually catered spontaneously, and not necessarily cooked for the benefit of everyone in the group. Most households complement the lack of a cooking regime with an absence of any specific timetable for doing the dishes: “When you look at it and think ‘It’s time’. It’s meant to be everyone does their own but I don’t think you can realistically say that that’s what anyone does. So just when you go, ‘Okay’” (Max). The above patterns suggest that the allocation of tasks is individualised, gender-neutral and often disorganised.

Householders themselves reject the relevance of gender as an organising principle: “Well, no. I mean there should be some level of fairness that isn’t based on the fact that you’re a girl or a guy” (Isaac). Betty concurs: “That’s like the fifties. I just don’t think anyone would stand for that”. As does Kim: “Being a man or a woman doesn’t have anything to do with what housework you do”. But although they universally reject the normative relevance of gender, householders are divided over the empirical existence of a link between gendered and domestic labour. Approximately one third of the participants draw distinctions between how men and women do housework. For example, Georgia believes that men “…don’t have the same attention to detail that girls do, like keeping the bench tidy, everything washed up, you know, little things like that, whereas girls can just see it and they know, they immediately go and clean it up”. Most, however, deny or individualise differences: “Not as much a difference between males and females in so much as different people and the ways they’ve been brought up and the different personalities they have” (Michelle).

In the absence of defined gender expectations, people must negotiate their own and others’ responsibilities: “We’re sensible people and we get on well, and it works best when each person says, ‘This is what I want, this is what I will do’” (Mickey); “There’s not any other way to do it, I guess. It’s got to be open, like full and frank discussion kind of a thing, but not angry or anything. More, we’re friends and so we can be relatively open about these things “ (Kate). These comments suggest the importance of negotiation between individuals, rather than gender, in organising domesticity in share households.

Both men and women opt in to housework, choosing to do it without acknowledging that they have to. Despite living in a group with rostered duties, Damien says that he will sometimes fail to clean the bathroom because “I like tidying but I just don’t like cleaning. … I don’t like scrubbing. So that’s not always done”. Exemplifying women’s attitudes, Betty says, “I’m not that kind of girl, I guess. …So sometimes I’ll come in and pretty much walk back out again if I won’t face it”. Both sexes de-prioritise domestic labour, avoiding it when other more tempting or pressing opportunities arise. In five of the households some men use their employment as a reason for not doing more (or in some cases, any) housework. Leisure and sociability also marginalize chores, for women as well as men. Jean describes weighing up her options: “The other night it was ‘Dishes? Movies? Dishes? Movies? Movies.’ These attitudes echo the traditional attitudes and freedoms of married men.

Together, the above findings suggest that in some respects, doing gender through doing housework may be dramatically different from the context of married relationships. In this study, men’s attitudes are similar to those traditionally associated with husbands – both do gender by marginalizing housework. But for women also, the performance of gender does not seem to be linked to the performance of domestic labour. On this reading it would seem that share householding offers an opportunity for change in the production of femininity in the context of housework.

Housework, Care and Gender

On a deeper reading, the seeming ad hoc, individualised and non-gendered involvement in housework belies a more coherent and gendered logic. This is rooted in the importance of care, which plays out in expectations of tolerance and consideration. In this process, the surface irrelevance of gender is contradicted by the symbolism of housework, and the way it is used to practice friendship and ultimately gender.

At the surface level, negotiations between the share householders are ordered by a normative framework that emphasises tolerance and consideration. Grace’s comments sum up the demands of tolerance: “I like Isaac and Tina, but sometimes what I want and what they do clashes a bit. But that’s part of living with other people, and you have to put up with it and realise that what they want is just as relevant as what you want, within reason of course”. Consideration is other-directed, respecting the needs of housemates. In terms of housework, it is evident in an expectation that each person takes responsibility for their own needs and mess, and recognises they have an obligation to contribute their labour more generally, in order to make life easier for those they live with. Vance says:

Because we’re all independent, we’re all adults and if you don’t have consideration for other people, leaving your shoes around or leaving your shit all over the table or whatever, then people have to live there as well, and they’re going to have guests over or friends, and it’s just common courtesy that you should clean up after yourself.

Tolerance and consideration often co-exist uneasily. For example, Jill reflects, “It’s difficult to know what to do. He should be able to live how he wants because he pays rent too. But then sometimes he’s so inconsiderate and I wonder why I have to put up with his shit but he won’t put up with me telling him what to do”. But save in extreme breaches, a lack of consideration does not lead to any systematic and overt punishment. Recalcitrants are protected by the simultaneous requirement of tolerance from those they live with. These dual expectations would seem to reflect the individualised nature of individuals’ responsibilities, rather than any gendered basis.

Both men and women emphasise tolerance and consideration but a close reading of the data suggests that their expectations and actions are not gender neutral. Men’s decision to opt in to housework, that is, their presumption they need not undertake it, is bolstered by their refusal to oversee the completion of tasks when they themselves will not do them. For example, Max comments “Look, if it gets too bad I might do some of it but it’s not my place and it’s not my job to chase them up and say ‘Do it’. We’re adults and I refuse to do that”. Sean says “ Occasionally I’ll mention something, to try and work it out. But it’s up to them.” In contrast to men, and in common with traditionally ‘wifely’ behaviour, women are likely to see themselves as ultimately responsible for the completion of tasks. They may walk away from the cleaning or the cooking but Belinda, who does not enjoy housework, speaks for many women in this sample when she recognises that “There is a point where it will have to be done and then either Jill or I will do it, usually.” Maria echoes this: “When it comes down to it [cleaning], it’s going to be me, not him.” Women are more likely to roll up their sleeves and do the task, even as both sexes appreciate the results and recognise the need for action, and neither undertakes the work on a regular basis.

Why are the women in this study more likely to do the chores? Both the men and the women prefer a tidy house; no-one talks about domestic labour in terms of gendered obligation; no-one explicitly sees it as a means of enacting gender. The answer lies in the symbolic resonance of housework. Lexi’s complaint begins to suggest the existence of diverging interpretive frames:

It’s not like any of us really care about the housework, you know? … So we’re all putting it off as a rule, and doing other stuff. But it’s like, it needs to be done. At some stage it needs to be done, just to keep it from disgustingness or because, you know, there’re no clean plates and you want to eat. And I’d say eight or nine times out of ten, it’s me and Betty who’ll go, ‘Right’ and do it. And I think that’s what shits me. Mickey likes it tidy too, but he’s getting the benefits from us and we’re doing all the work. Like the other day, he walked in and went, ‘This is really nice. We should try to keep it clean all the time’. And I’m like, ‘We? What’s this ‘we’ shit?’ ’Cause you know, there’s not actually all that much ‘we’ in this scenario. Which is another quite crappy thing about Mickey. For all that we’re good friends and we’ve known each other for years, I don’t think he’s ever made an effort to give the place a vacuum and a tidy when I’m coming home from a crappy day at the café.

Part of Lexi’s dissatisfaction stems from blunt inequality – one person is doing less of the dirty work with no justification. But her complaint includes something else. Completing any given job is not a defining feature of the women’s day-to-day routines but most accord it a positive symbolic meaning, understanding it as a way of showing care for those with whom they live. When a housemate consistently fails to contribute their labour, their inaction is interpreted as a comment on the relationships in the household.

The intersection of caring for and caring about is evident in Tina’s comments:

Well it’s an interesting situation because when I think closely about it I realise that it’s that I do it because it needs doing, but I also tend, I think, to do it also because I’m wanting to say something about living with them and make the place a bit of a home, such as it is.

Edwina has similar thoughts:

Objectively it has to happen. Objectively, there are things that have to be cleaned. The dishes, for example. They have to be done for hygiene and to use them again, and so there’s room in the kitchen. But also I’ll sometimes wonder if it doesn’t indicate something about how we see each other, like why don’t we care enough to make it nice, and not just for me, but for these people who I live with and who matter to me?

Jean lives with two men and finds herself in a similar position: “The washing up is sometimes stacked there for a couple of days and it won’t be my turn but I’ll do it because sometimes he gets home and he’s just fucked from work. I figure that it’s not much time but makes things easier for him”. Such comments suggest that the nexus of labour and intimacy is a motivation for dedicating effort for others’ benefit. Women’s attitudes are thus linked with a different form of labour – emotional labour. Female share householders do more of the physical chores and almost all of the emotional housekeeping as it pertains to housework. In this, their attitudes reflect a surprisingly traditional interpretation of housework (see for example, DeVault 1990), one that links it to women’s traditional role of carer and nurturer, wife and mother.

Men often read their female housemates’ practices through a similar interpretive lens. Vance says, “Deborah and Rachel, they’re good people, you know? And I think they help around the house because they’re trying to make it a home.” Brad also sings the praises of the women he lives with, attributing their offers of meals and leftovers to the intimacy within the group. Sean is most appreciative of Edwina’s efforts to pick up his slack, describing her actions as those of a “good friend”. Conversely, in the same household, Jack is damning of Georgia because her refusal to take part in the householding practices of the rest of the group shows that she holds herself aloof from friendship, and cannot acknowledge the needs of others.

While emphasizing the caring dimensions of women’s labour, men’s interpretive frames minimise the symbolic connection between housework and their relationships with the people with whom they live. Any absence of effort on their part is discussed with reference to practicalities or preference, not a lack of care. Roger’s comments are indicative of this reasoning: “I work long hours and they’re odd hours too, up to 3 in the morning sometimes, so I’m not really up for the cleaning. I’d say Maria does a bit more but you know, she’s knows it’s not personal”. Similarly, Adam says, “I don’t really want to do more and the thing is Jean probably does do a bit more but that’s not something that would cause problems or anything, we’re all mates”. Six women across three households have also adopted a less traditional understanding of housework, at least in terms of care: “It’s not something I think about. It’s just the cleaning. I don’t waste my energies over things like that” (Helena);

When men deny any symbolic significance in their failures, they excuse themselves from increasing their contributions. Roger, who benefits from the efforts of Marie, while withholding his own labour puts it bluntly: “…well, if she doesn’t like it she doesn’t have to do it”. Max’s approach is similar: “Jill sometimes gets a bit shitty, she doesn’t really hide it well but I think she tries. But my response is, ‘If you want a clean house, tidy it up. But if you’re sick of the work, don’t do it. I don’t care’”. These comments suggest that for the men in this study, housework is not a significant element of their identities or their relationships with others.

Negotiation and Change

Men and women’s divergent interpretive frames make negotiation difficult. In keeping with the importance of tolerance, most women acknowledge the validity of their male housemates’ approach, even though this is often tempered by some dissatisfaction over the current state of affairs. Deborah describes the limited efforts of Vance and Leon and then says, “ Well, yes it bothers me sometimes. But it’s my house but also theirs just as much as mine, and so they should be living here in whatever way they want to, housework-wise anyway”. Jill is similarly ambivalent:

When we first moved in it was all like, ‘We’re adults, we don’t need to spell it out. If we have a problem we’re mature enough to talk about it.’ But I don’t like to say anything because really, I can’t impose myself on what should be done. And it’s like, if I’m truthful, I get hurt and I think that they should maybe respect my needs a bit more than they do, and do things because they know it matters to me and they don’t really care, so why not? But that’s not really something you say. They’d be, ‘What?’

Interviewer: So, don’t rock the boat?

Jill: Sort of. But more like, different ways approaching this and so then why is my perspective better?

Women do, of course, ask men to change. These requests are directed at altering people’s involvement in discrete tasks, they are ad hoc and rarely pursued in an aggressive or sustained fashion. Kate comments, “I’ll say ‘Can we try to keep the place cleaner?’ usually when it’s obviously rank, but you can’t say this every time someone doesn’t take their plate to the kitchen”; “The bathroom can upset me. It’s grotty. Normally I’ll do it anyway but sometimes I’ve cracked and said to Roger, ‘Please, just occasionally, use the toilet brush’” (Maria).

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the expectations of tolerance, asking for change can be accompanied by a sense of unease: “Of course I’ll ask someone to do the dishes. But I’ll wait and wait, because I feel really uncomfortable about it. And that makes my feelings worse, I get more resentful. I don’t know what I’m waiting for, but I do” (Edwina). These comments suggest that when women pursue change, they are not so much negotiating as they are requesting a favour from the men they live with, and one that judging from the comments of Max and Roger, above, is not always granted.

When women do gender in ways that echo traditional practices, they are at risk of being exploited by those – usually men – who do not. They come to code men’s failures with reference to the same framework they use when describing their own efforts. Thus, an appropriation of labour is not simply an issue of inequality; it reflects a devaluation of the relationships in the house. This is turn can act as an impetus for change. Some women act to limit their disadvantage within it. Consider the following conversation:

Teresa: I like Joel, he’s my friend so I’ll clean up his dishes when he’s had a bad day sometimes. If his writing didn’t go well I’ll cook him something to have with me or, or I go buy him a treat, like a Flake [chocolate bar] or something. I want to because I’m sure it’s really hard to write a book. But then I think well, serving food all day is a pretty cruddy job and no-one’s doing the breakfast stuff before I come home. And I don’t want to come home and make dinner after carving up meat and slopping gravy. But Joel doesn’t do that for me.

Interviewer: So have you said anything about this?

Teresa: No. It seems quite horrible but I think probably, I’m probably just not doing so much. Like the other day he came up and had a bitch then looked at the sink and went ‘Oh fuck’ and there were ants everywhere because we have this ant problem. And they were his dishes, I didn’t eat breakfast. And I think a while ago I would probably have said ‘Oh, I’ll do them. You’ve had a bad day’ kind of thing because I do care. But I just went out to Tempo [a local café] for a coffee instead. … I kind of felt mean. I mean, he’d been working and I wasn’t and then I just went out.

In a similar fashion, Grace no longer cleans the bathroom as regularly as she once did: “I guess it comes down to I’ve done it the past few times and I’m sick of doing it. They should be recognising that my feelings about this should matter too but I don’t see that they care about my feelings about this”. Georgia withdrew from the group cooking and shopping regime, washes up only her own dishes and pans, refuses any further responsibility for bill paying and does no more than her rostered job. Her justification is explicitly referenced to others’ failures: “they weren’t treating me kindly by not doing any of their work. So I just stopped”. In fact her disengagement was not quite as neat or as quick as this comment suggests. It extended over a series of increasingly fraught weeks and unsuccessful attempts at change. Withdrawing one’s labour maybe a powerful decision, and one that protects against further appropriation of effort, but it is not the result of successful negotiations.

The above decisions might immediately suggest performances that more closely fit our understandings of pre-eminent domestic masculinities. But women who actively decide to do less are not enacting subversive gender identities. A defining element of common feminine approaches to housework – caring about by caring for – remains part of the organising framework. The withdrawal of labour occurs because women interpret an absence of effort as an indicator of declining or absent friendship and intimacy. Further, many women who pursue this course of action are uncomfortable with their decision, possibly because it is at odds with their definitions of appropriate behaviour; men do not feel this way.


On one level, this study indicates a de-gendering of housework. Both men and women commonly avoid domestic labour, doing the minimum they can, and opting in when no other more pressing or seductive possibility appears on the horizon. These attitudes reflect those more commonly found amongst husbands who benefit from the labour of the women they live with. Women step in earlier than men, and most claim to do more than them, an estimation with which their male housemates agree. Nonetheless, their situation is different from those living with male sexual partners, where the appropriation of labour is more systematic and is arguably shaped by lingering traditional definitions of domestic femininity. On the face of it, it would seem that share households do undermine the differentiation of gender in respect to housework. It is perhaps more accurate to argue that linkages between masculinity and housework are not altered, whereas those between femininity and domestic labour have been re-shaped in ways that ostensibly marginalize the importance of doing housework.

The shared attitudes of the men and women in this study fit with the rejection of any normative significance of masculinity or femininity. Gender identities are defined as irrelevant to the question of who should do what. The members of a household, male and female, are expected to pursue their own interests and desires, albeit within a normative framework of tolerance and consideration. This presumption counters any argument that share householders simply adopt a ‘masculine’ way of approaching housework. When men and women live in a sexual relationship, masculinity often incorporates legitimate expressions of power – this has been the basis for women’s greater responsibility for the chores. In the present context people acknowledge the needs and responsibilities of the individual as a householder, rather than a gendered being.

The manifest irrelevance of gender is contradicted by its latent presence and function in the enactment of relationships. Male and female respondents attach an expressive significance to domestic labour, and do so in quite different ways. For women, doing housework is important because it is a way of expressing intimacy. Caring about someone through caring for him – less often her – is a traditionally feminine reading of domestic labour. In familial and sexual relationships this usually linked to notions of “a good wife” or “a good woman”. Such language is absent in discourses of share householding; consideration – the acknowledgement of others’ needs and desires – takes its place. The end result is, women can refuse to opt in to housework but this choice is limited by expressive demands that are not generally relevant for the men in this sample.

Men are also implicitly driven by a connection of housework and intimacy. Consideration is important, but it is not as significant as tolerance. For male share householders, disengagement is a way of reflecting care: friends accept each other’s actions and do not try to impose their needs upon those with whom they live. This puts a new spin on the traditional disconnection of masculinity and household chores. It suggests that any ‘obvious’ irrelevance of domestic labour paradoxically tightens the bonds between gender identity and housework, because the relationship is defined by absence. In this way, gender remains a key interpretive framework and a means of ordering housework in share households; housework in turn is a means of enacting gender.

Both men and women have a limited involvement in housework, but they acknowledge that inequalities exist, and sometimes grievances bubble to the surface. This can spur the women into action, or more accurately, inaction. But doing less and less housework is still linked to femininity. In the first place, the impetus to change is a particular interpretation of domestic chores, and one that most men do not share. The women understand their efforts as an expression of intimacy; their male housemates’ failure to act in a similar way is seen to devalue the relationship. Secondly, women’s disengagement comes after their housemates – usually their male housemates – have refused to make any substantial change to their actions. In effect, women change their behaviour because their definitions are secondary to those of the men they live with.

The attempts at change also point to the difficulties of negotiation, even in relationships where the absence of traditional or identifiable roles would suggest a greater freedom in establishing and maintaining domestic order. Full and frank discussion may be undermined by the demands of the relationship, and the implications of such a talk. For most of the women in this study negotiations over the housework are read as commentaries on personal relationships. This additional, hermeneutic dimension of housework means that discussions are not simply about calculating fair domestic loads – they are latent descriptions of feelings and their reciprocity. It is unlikely that Giddens (1992:3) was envisaging a stand off over the washing up when he described intimacy as “a transactional negotiation of personal ties by equals” but this can in fact be an element of reflexively managing relationships, and an important one at that.

Even when people accept and pursue the de-coupling of traditional gender identities and housework, the outcomes are not what common sense or optimism might expect. While the organisation of housework is referenced to gender-neutral individuals, the men and women in this sample do not experience their relationships in this way. Their perceptions, interpretations and actions are not structured by traditional domestic roles, but gendered identities and relationship practices are not so easily avoided, morphing from traditional expectations into new forms, specific to the context.

This paper suggests that the possibilities of late modernity are more contradictory than might first seem to be the case. Living outside of the traditional heterosexual family structures may in itself be an indicator of the transformations of intimacy and society. Indeed, Budgeon and Roseneil (2004:128) claim that non-traditional intimate relationships “are both constitutive and productive of these conditions of social change”. New types of intimate connections can of course offer new ways of relating to others, new ways of caring. But these alternative ways of doing things can also continue to exist as spaces in which remarkably traditional gendered performances continue to be acted out. Late modernity might be marked by a change in gender dynamics but it does not necessarily provide an easy escape from them.


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