Amanda at Pandagon linked last week to this summary of a study from the journal Sex Roles, reporting that college-aged women spent considerably less time playing video games than their male counterparts. No surprise there, but the key explanation for the discrepancy is chilling:
â€œOur findings suggest that one reason women play fewer games than men is because they are required to fulfill more obligatory activities, leaving them less available leisure time,â€ said Jillian Winn of MSUâ€™s Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media, and one of the co-authors of the study.
To be precise, the study found that college-aged women did sixteen hours “more work” per week (chores, jobs, and so forth). As Amanda pointed out, that finding dwarfs the discussion of video games; it points to further evidence of what Courtney Martin talks about in her marvelous Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters and what on this blog is called “The Martha Complex”. Young women today are increasingly likely to be over-worked, anxious, and beset by fears of failure; a growing percentage of their brothers are hooked on pot, porn, and Playstation, prioritizing “chilling out” over virtually any other waking activity. And an extraordinary number of these lads have women in their lives — mothers, sisters, girlfriends — cleaning up after them (a traditional sex role) and providing for them financially (something of an innovation.)
This time discrepancy is rooted in many things, it seems. Of course, some of it is rooted in the contemporary cultural ideal that, as Courtney Martin says, tells girls that they “can be anything” but implies that in order to do so, that they must somehow “do everything.” Over-caffeinated, over-achieving, and over-scheduled, a great many women are beset by anxiety. But it would be wrong to suggest that the problem is primarily in women’s heads. The time gap that forces so many college-aged, childless women to work a “second shift” is indeed frequently a result of direct pressure from parents and the community.
The lower the expectations for male behavior, the higher the expectations for female success and self-control. This is not only obvious and axiomatic, it has real-life repercussions in the lives of a great many young women. Many of my students come from immigrant families in which there are strict household divisions of labor; women cook and clean, men take out trash and fix cars. Given that cooking, cleaning, and laundry are daily and time-consuming activities compared to mowing lawns or emptying garbage cans, many of my female students take the same academic loads as their brothers while doing twice as much work at home. In many families, a young man is encouraged to do his homework so that he can then go out with his friends and play video games; his sister is told to help with the chores, and when everything else is done, she can then turn to her own homework.
In some families, a daughter’s academic achievement is less important than that of a son, and hence she is expected to do more traditional “women’s work” in addition to (and usually before) her studies. But from what I can tell from my students, the pressure to succeed academically falls equally on girls and boys. The difference is that the family tends to assume that sons aren’t as capable of doing laundry or handling the grocery shopping or washing up the dishes. Boys are allowed to be more single-minded in their focus on success, while their sisters are expected to perform traditional female roles as well as earning straight As. With that in mind, it’s not hard to account for an extra 16 hours of work per week.
Young women with the Martha Complex also tend to have a sense of near-panic about running out of time. Most Marthas set timetables for themselves: “I will have my degree at 22, meet my future husband by the time I’m 24, have my law degree at 26 and buy a house in the suburbs at 29.” Warned over-and-over again about the dangers of waiting too long to start a family; warned to get a good education with a good job so that they “won’t have to rely on a man”, a great many young women have one eye on the calendar, watching with a barely suppressed sense of panic as their carefully designed plans crumble beneath the weight of too much to do and too little time in which to do it. A sour economy cuts jobs and cuts college course offerings, wreaking further havoc with the precious — but whoppingly unrealistic — timetables. And while their brothers might take advantage of a slumping economy to live at home indefinitely, protesting that “since there’s no work and all the classes are closed, I have no choice but to play Halo all day”, young women grow even more frantic, often doubling up on work or taking classes simultaneously at different colleges. Helping out a struggling family and sticking to that damn timetable leaves little time or energy for video games. Apparently, on average, 16 hours per week less.
We do need to do a much better job of offering reassurance to young women, carefully noting the ways in which we as adults or peers inculcate and reinforce perfectionism. But we cannot escape the reality that we pressure our daughters more as a result of pressuring our sons less; high expectations for girls are linked to an unwillingness to hold young men to an equally high standard. The peddlers of the notion that we have a boy crisis in this country tell us our boys can’t sit still, can’t focus as well, can’t develop intellectually as rapidly as girls. As that notion of male weakness becomes ever more widespread, the hopes and dreams of families get foisted on to daughters, who are presumed to be both more compliant and more capable of following direction. The less we expect from our sons, the more crushing the burden we place on their sisters. This doesn’t mean we ought to return to beating inattentive third-grade boys. It does mean that we need to recognize that our current consensus that boys develop more slowly than girls has devastating repercussions in the lives of our daughters.
Boys can sit still, focus, and work. And in order to create a more balanced adolescent culture; in order to create a more egalitarian world; in order to reduce the pressure on our daughters we must raise the expectations on our sons to the point that all of our expectations are equal. Until we do that, the anxiety epidemic will claim more victims.