CamFest Speaker Spotlight: Dr Tom McClelland

Tom McClelland is a lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. He will be speaking about his and colleague Paulina Sliwa’s recent research findings on the much contested ground of who does the housework and what impact gender has in Seeing the mess: Gender, housework and perception at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science on Thursday 21st March 3-4pm. 

How did you come to look at gender expectations and perceptions around housework?
I’d been working for a while on how differences in how people behave can reflect differences in how they perceive the world around them. I’d always wanted to apply this to gender-related issues but there was never the right opportunity.

Then my colleague Paulina Sliwa (now a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna) approached me with an idea for a paper. She’d come across my work on perception and thought it could be applied in her field of moral and political philosophy. Specifically, she thought that we could explain gender differences in domestic labour in terms of differences in how women and men tend to perceive the domestic environment. 

The COVID-19 pandemic was another important factor in our research. During the pandemic various bits of research emerged (such as this UN report) that suggested the pandemic was having a disproportionate effect on women. This included gender imbalances in the domestic context, with women shouldering disproportionate responsibilities for domestic labour and childcare. Although this kind of gender imbalance obviously has a long history, the pandemic really brought it into focus. 

What was the main finding of your paper?
Our paper argued that gender inequality in domestic labour is best explained in terms of differences in how men and women are trained to see the domestic environment. The theory behind our proposal is that we see our environment in terms of what we can do in it.

For instance, you see stairs as climbable, apples as edible and chairs as sit-on-able. These action-related features of the environment are known as ‘affordances’ and there’s a lot of work in psychology and philosophy exploring how we perceive affordances. The affordances we perceive reflect our upbringing and life-experiences, so two people in the very same environment might see very different affordances.

Applying this framework to housework, we can describe the domestic environment in terms of affordances domestic tasks. So the crumbs on the surface afford wiping, the messy carpet affords hoovering and the overflowing bin affords taking out. 

Our hypothesis was that there are gender differences in the perception of these domestic affordances with women being more likely to perceive the crumbs as affording wiping, for example, than men are. Since our behaviour is guided by our perception of affordances, this helps explain why women often end up doing more housework. This hypothesis also helps explain another interesting pattern: the widespread invisibility of women’s labour.

Various studies, such as this NY Times survey, suggest that men tend to underestimate how much domestic labour their female partners do. We offer a simple explanation for this. Men are less likely to see the crumbs as affording wiping in the first place and so less likely to notice that the job’s been done by their partner. 

The paper got a lot of media coverage. Why do you think that was and were there any misunderstandings?
I think lots of households have tensions over housework and in different-sex couples this is bound up with wider gender issues. Our research came out just before Christmas, which is a time of year that tends to exacerbate those tensions. Most of the coverage reflected our research pretty well.

The main misunderstanding was some people thinking that the proposed gender differences in perception are innate rather than learned. Our view is that society trains women and men to see the domestic environment differently.

For example, young girls being given dolls and toy household equipment trains them to see affordances for domestic tasks. Boys are much less likely to get that training, and so less likely to be tuned into those domestic affordances when they become adults. But some of the media coverage said that our research posited differences in the brain that explain why women see the home differently to men.

Besides being a complete inversion of our view, this coverage contributed to a dangerous narrative according to which gender inequalities are somehow natural and unavoidable. Our view is very much that these inequalities can be fixed. 

How easy or hard is it to retrain your brain - to be less mess focused for some [mainly women] and more mess focused by others [mainly men]?
Retraining your perception takes time, but the good news is that we do it all the time. Think about learning to drive: to begin with you have to deliberate about whether a gap in the traffic is big enough to get in, but with practice you learn to see the gap as get-in-able or un-get-in-able. Things are much the same with learning to see domestic affordances.

You’ve got to go through a phase of deliberately looking for what needs doing then, with time, you’ll learn to just see those jobs automatically. You can try setting up particular times for doing this. For example, you could adopt the rule that while the kettle’s boiling you look around the kitchen for anything that needs cleaning or tidying. Then over time you’ll learn to just see those jobs without thinking. Learning not to see domestic affordances is a bit trickier. Being in the habit of doing a particular job tunes you in to when that job needs doing.

So one way of tuning out of a job is to not do it any more! Obviously that would require coordinating with your partner so that they take responsibility for the job instead. But if all goes well that job will gradually stop calling out to you to be done. 

Can you explain Philosophy of Mind in one easy to understand paragraph?
Philosophy of mind asks questions like What is consciousness?, What’s the difference between seeing and believing? and Is your mind the same thing as your brain? Nowadays there are close links between philosophy of mind and cognitive science, but the questions we ask about the mind are still quite different.

Philosophers ask more conceptual questions like What is pain? whereas cognitive scientists ask more concrete questions like How are pain signals processed by the brain? This ties in with the different methods we use: where science is based on observation philosophy is more theoretical.

That isn’t to say that observations don’t make a difference to philosophy of mind. Our paper on housework builds on various studies in sociology, psychology and even psychiatry. But we aren’t doing the work of observing and experimenting. Instead, we’re doing the theoretical work of making sense of the data and pointing the way for future research. 

You also work with business. What does that generally involve?There’s lots of philosophical research that has applications in the business world. The most obvious applications come from ethics. Businesses worry about their social and environmental duties, about issues of diversity and inclusion and about the ethical use of AI and big data.

Philosophers like me help businesses to navigate these ethical issues. This isn’t a matter of coming in and telling them what they should and shouldn’t be doing. It’s more a case of helping them to understand what the issues are and giving them the tools to develop their own ethical perspective. 

The coaching group Outstanding Global has given me the chance to work with some really interesting businesses. A lot of my research looks at skills and how the skills we acquire alter our perception of the world. Taking lessons from philosophy of mind and cognitive science, I help people to understand their own skills and to nurture the skills of others. My workshops involve some theory, a few practical exercises and a bit of homework. It’s been great to see how open people are to applying lessons from academia. 

Your new work on gender is on 'objectification'. Can you give any details about it? Does it relate in any way to your previous work?
Our research on housework made us think about how the theoretical concept of affordances could be applied to other gender issues. Objectification is a central concept in feminist theory. Although anyone can be the victim of objectification it is much more common for women to be objectified.

The literature tends to focus on what it means to treat someone as an object, but people also talk about seeing someone as an object. This often comes up in the context of how women are depicted in the media: film critic Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze is now common parlance. 

We’re interested in working out what exactly it means to see someone as an object. As discussed, objects can afford various actions for us. But people too present us with possibilities for action. You might see someone as affording talking to, affording walking with or affording hugging. Seeing someone as affording those actions seems perfectly benign, but if you see someone as affording objectifying actions things aren’t so innocent. Groping someone, for example, would generally be an objectifying action.

As such, to see someone as gropable is to see them in an objectifying way. This ties in with all sorts of tricky questions about when an action is objectifying, how images can invite an objectifying gaze and whether we can morally condemn people for how they perceive others. 

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