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Some apps mimic business software. Michael Perry, founder of the app Maple, says his apps — inspired by workplace tools like Slack and Trello — put tasks in a “landfill” where family members can choose them over chat, without one person having to delegate.
Other approaches are inspired by domestic inequality research. Rachel Drapper, a research associate at Harvard Business School, has been working to integrate research on how couples can better split the household into a future app, FairShare. “A lot of solutions are aimed at women, and we didn’t think that was the intent,” she says. Drapper’s solution, which is still just a prototype, is to crowdsource data on how households divide their tasks and use the results to inform other households about what works and what doesn’t.
The problem is, these apps face an immensely difficult task of overthrowing entrenched societal norms: girls in the kitchen with their mothers, boys playing with their fathers. Such expectations are part of what leaves women in heterosexual couples with so much of the housework (same-sex couples are noticeably more egalitarian). Once women become mothers, the imbalance gets worse.
Yet the problem is not if men can play an equal role in the household, but how† Unsurprisingly, men in more egalitarian cultures take on a much fairer share. And in those places, if neither partner has the time or energy, the government itself can come to their rescue. In Sweden, that tops the gender equality index in the EU, the state pays half of the bill for renting out chores like laundry and house cleaning, meaning many more busy families can afford it. This in turn benefits women’s earning potential. In Belgium a similar state subsidy for outsourcing chores led to a significant increase in female employment†
In the United States, many women – mothers or not – are at a crisis point, with little in the way of safety nets such as affordable or subsidized childcare or health care.
Papers on inequalities
Part of the reason apps struggle to make a serious dent in women’s housework is that much of the work women do is not physical, but mental and emotional. The burden still primarily rests on women to anticipate the needs of those around them and make day-to-day decisions on behalf of the family, says Allison Daminger, a Harvard doctoral student in sociology. These tasks may include researching the best deal for a bank or remembering that it’s time to schedule a child’s visit to the dentist. It is time consuming work, even if it is usually hidden from others.
The design of the Chore app regularly enshrines the status quo: that it is mostly women who delegate household chores. “I can’t think of time” [in my research] where a man made a list for his wife, but I can think of several cases where a woman made a list for her husband,” Daminger says.
Jaclyn Wong, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina, isn’t just an expert on the role of gender expectations in couple dynamics. She’s also testing her own app, a chore calendar that tries to avoid gender-based traps — the wife does the cooking, the husband does the yard work — by splitting the full range of household chores between both partners. It is also meant to write down exactly what each person does.
Chapman Clark says making the invisible labor visible in this way was a huge benefit of using her DIY app. “It helped me notice when my husband was contributing, and it helped my husband notice that there are so many more tasks than just sweeping, vacuuming, cooking, and washing dishes,” she says.
But not everyone likes seeing that discrepancy between a couple’s contributions. Wong’s research shows that this is an uphill battle: “There is pushback. People become defensive when they are informed about ways they are not equal partners,” she notes. The risk is that couples will leave an app for that reason, even if it could help them in the long run.
While apps may be easy to access and use, they often only seem to solve the gender inequalities in the home. They can actually wreck relationships when viewed as a “management tool” rather than a “partnership tool,” says Kate Mangino, author of a new book, Equal partnerson how to improve gender equality in households.
“One of the ways we excuse gender inequality is ‘she’s the manager and I’m the helper,'” says Mangino, paraphrasing how a spouse might feel. It creates a strange power dynamic that only amplifies the apps.
The key to an app’s success is the buy-in from the partner who has done less, and that’s impossible to guarantee. “Managing the app is still seen as women’s work,” Wong says. “We’ve established these standards that women and mothers have the last word.”
Ultimately, a chore app can only do so much to get an unwilling partner to join in, and it can’t undo centuries of sexism. It can help to make more visible who does what in the house, but it can’t change the situation unless both members of a couple understand the need for change – and that remains the biggest barrier.
“I am often approached by [chore app] entrepreneurs, and the feedback I almost always give is, ‘How are you going to get men more involved in engagement?’” says Daminger. “That’s the biggest hurdle, and I don’t know anyone who has done that.”