When we asked the 16 000 South African women who took part in our Female Nation She Says Survey to tell us about their lives, one topic we couldn’t ignore was household chores. And, more specifically, who was responsible for doing them.

Of the overall entrants surveyed, which includes single and partnered women, 62% of women said they do the bulk of this work. This number added up when we compared it to the smaller male sample in which 44% of men said they do.

Since only 2.6% of overall female respondents in the survey classified themselves as homemakers, one can’t help but wonder at the high percentage of women who the household chores.

It was also rather worrying to note that only 1 in 8 women had the perception that they share the work equally with their partners. Yet 1 in 4 men thought this was the case. So, who is deluded here?

What is the mental load? 

Recently a comic went viral explaining a concept that most women are very familiar with. It’s about the often unspoken and always unsung responsibility or mental load that comes with being in charge of a household.

This includes dozens of ever-changing things to organise and tasks to do in order for things to run smoothly.

From buying mosquito repellent to ordering lamp shades to getting a plumber in to fix a leaky faucet to replacing stained throw pillows to packing lunch boxes to making dentist appointments to deciding what to make for dinner to buying Christmas presents to doing little girls’ hair to paying for swimming lessons to scheduling play dates to organising weekends away to remembering birthdays.

While there are very few men who don’t do any housekeeping or parenting chores, the planning and overall responsibility often rests with the woman.

Take Hashim (25) for example. He and his wife both work full-time but he admits to only doing about 30% of the chores. In an interview with W24 he said he knows it’s unfair but he is lazy and feels she should tell him when she needs help.

‘I’ll pick up the towel and sometimes I’ll take the washing off the line (she must ask) but I’ll never put a dirty load in the machine.’

And only 1 in 5 women said they share childrearing equally.

Anonymous (24) and his wife have been married for a year. He works full-time and she studies full-time. ‘She shouldn’t have to ask for help although I usually only help when she asks. Maybe 10% of the time I help out on my own.

She doesn’t complain that much and we get a domestic worker once a week so I wouldn’t say it’s a big, every day burden she carries.’

The argument is, that even in houses where men ‘help out’ this mental load is often squarely on the shoulders of the female partner.

And while there are – of course – always exceptions, these seem to be few and far between. If we look at the data, less than 2% of the overall number of female respondents said that their partners do the majority of housework.

And only 1 in 5 women said they share childrearing equally.

The unequal division of labour at home is obviously not a new concept. The conversation began in earnest in the 1960s when more and more women entered the workplace and yet, while employed, still remained responsible for unpaid and undervalued work such as childcare, cooking, cleaning and shopping.

More than 50 years later the picture looks different, but not near different enough. Housework is still often either overtly or obliquely seen as ‘women’s work’ and men who do their share of this unpaid labour are seen as anomalies.

Women are still expected to juggle work, housekeeping and childcare while men can largely focus solely on their careers. And those men who do contribute by cooking the odd meal or fetching the kids from school are praised as for ‘helping out’.

‘People think a wife has her husband wrapped around her finger when he does housework, when in reality it’s just fair,’ says Naseema* who has a full-time job.

‘Think about it – when people talk about how this and that guy cooks and cleans at home, it’s like something to marvel and wonder on.’

Are mothers teaching their sons bad habits?

Some definitely do. While the survey was focused on women, we received about 500 male entries too and this has been a useful test group to compare against.

While 8% of the overall group said they paid someone to cook and clean, another 8% said their mothers do this for them. This trend continues up to age 35 which begs the question: Why is a grown man in his mid-thirties’ mother doing his housekeeping?

Sam (30), who runs his own business while his wife is a stay-at-home mom thinks noticing what needs to be done doesn’t happen by itself. ‘To be blatantly honest, I wouldn’t pick up a wet towel lying on the floor or take the washing off the line when I saw it was dry.

And that purely comes from how I was raised. My mother or our domestic helper was always there to do those things. But if I saw we ran out of groceries, most of the time my wife must remind me but sometimes I’ll do it on my own.’

Naseema’s (not her real name*) mother-in-law spoils her son and it frustrates her. ‘She likes to think she’s progressive and modern but she shelters her children so much.

An in-depth study of 1 500 couples over five years showed that those who share chores tend to have more and better sex.

‘For example, she would find it utterly shocking that her son (my husband) has to help clean the house by sweeping and doing dishes as if to make like I’m abusing him or not performing my duties as a wife.

So a lot of the mental load mentality stems from upbringing hey. And it’s sad to say that maybe breaking out of it isn’t as easy.’

Ebrahim (28) agrees. ‘I do think it [socialisation] is an issue for sure. The general way things are normally leads boys to become men that cannot properly look after themselves, and girls who become women who think they cannot be as tough as men are.

I think it’s healthy to raise your kids on both sides, so that they become fully functioning adults.’

Although, not everyone agrees. Naiem (35) says it’s only natural that women do the household chores. ‘I am still of the age old opinion that a man should be out earning for his family, while a woman should tend to the family.

One is the root of the family, while the other is its backbone. With this in mind, I believe that women handle the mental load better than men and even if we try our best to help out, we can never accomplish what she can. This is ultimately nature’s way.’

Sharing chores and childcare equally improves sex lives

An in-depth study of 1 500 couples over five years showed that those who share chores tend to have more and better sex.

And our research supports that. The women in our study who identified as the primary parents are more than two times less likely to say that they are completely happy with their sex lives compared with those who share child rearing equally.

Someone should tell Naiem. – W24