DIY: the women doing it for themselves
When Sian Berry needs her dishwasher fixing or a plug rewiring, she doesn’t have to rely on someone else. She is proud of having the skills to do it herself. She even sounds genuinely excited about taking on the kind of worthy new year chore that most of us put off indefinitely, from insulating her loft to recovering an old armchair.
Berry is a Green Party spokeswoman and she set up the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s, but who knew she was a DIY nut? It’s all in her new book Mend It! (Kyle Cathie, £16.99), which guides the DIY-shy through projects from fixing wobbly table legs to rewiring lamps.
Although not explicitly aimed at women, it makes a case for home improvements being as much about female-friendly skills such as mending and general thriftiness as male ones that involve brute strength and macho banter.
For the rest of us likely to be tackling DIY as part of our 2010 agenda, we should remember that there are other ways to go about it, aside from a traditional division of labour, which sees only men wielding power tools. And should we break out of our gendered habits, we may even find that our relationships improve. According to new research published last week, couples who share unpaid household tasks are more likely to stay together.
After 19 years studying more than 50,000 adults in Canada, Rod Beaujot, of the University of Western Ontario, reveals that dividing chores often makes for happier relationships than those in which one person works more and another takes on the lion’s share of the home duties. He focused mostly on housework and childcare, rather than specifically DIY, but his theory is clear: if both parties knuckle down to boring household jobs, couples are less likely to fight over them.
What’s more, as we hover mid-recession, it’s a sensible time for women to join men in picking up tools. When times are tough, anything is better than coughing up for a hefty call-out fee, followed by the cost of labour and materials. “DIY seems like the savvy, even the chic, thing to do at a time when frugality and anti-consumerist sentiment are proliferating,” wrote Ann M Mack, the director of trendspotting at the global advertising agency JWT, in its report published last year. Plus, with a growth in female home ownership and single women now accounting for more than one in five UK households, women often have no choice but to brush up on skills traditionally practised by men.
Even if you live with a man happy to leap to your assistance every time a doorknob rattles, the chances are that he might not be up to the job. In 2008, a survey quizzed 3,000 men about their DIY knowledge and found that less than three quarters of young men (under 40) could change a fuse, while 30 per cent didn’t know how to bleed a radiator. Among the older generation (over 40) only 11 per cent were unable to change a fuse. It points to a future in which DIY skills may no longer be passed down through generations of men. Instead, both sexes will tackle them, coming at them with similar levels of knowledge. In short, pretty clueless.
Collette Dunkley set up Chix & Mortar last March after clocking an increase in DIY interest from women. The company provides weekend DIY courses for women, approved by the National Construction Academy. She says that women are still uncomfortable negotiating with builders and tradesmen, as well as dealing with DIY suppliers: “The best way to overcome this is for women to learn the skills themselves.” For the past four months, Dunkley’s courses have been fully booked: “Women are beginning to realise that anyone can change a washer, hang a picture or fit a plug. It’s just a matter of knowing how.”
But how might this female awakening affect our relationships? According to Andrew G. Marshall, a marital therapist, younger couples are likely to be more fluid about who does the DIY. “For them, it’s more about working to your talents, or even who gets home first from work. So a man might enjoy doing the cooking while his wife gets on with organising home improvements,” he says.
While this works on one level — and is a prime example of the post-feminist division of labour — Marshall argues that sharing duties, the recipe advocated by Beaujot’s Canadian research, can also cause tension. “In the past, everyone knew where they were. Women drove DIY tasks, chivvying the men along, but men were the do-ers . . . in other words, women chose the paint, men put it on,” he says.
“Now many more men have an opinion on style and design and women have a say about how it’s done. Everything is fought over. I see massive power struggles in couples because neither man nor woman will give up control over anything.”
In fact, the concept of a useless man not knowing his spanner from his spirit level is sometimes even promoted by women, whatever the reality, according to research by Dr Rebecca Meisenbach, of the University of Missouri, USA, which was published last month in the journal Sex Roles.
Her research paper The Female Breadwinner suggests that women who earn the majority of the household’s income experience an “overwhelming sense of guilt” owing to the fact that they focus on work rather than the home. “By highlighting stories of how men have to be told or asked to do specific chores in the home, these female breadwinners are making sure they still fit gender boundaries of a wife as someone who manages the home,” writes Meisenbach. So for high-earning, high-achieving alpha females, DIY becomes another arena in which they can show off their all-round brilliance.
But why do we take DIY so seriously in the first place? A 2004 study by the Social Issue Research Centre in Oxford looked at what motivates the first-time DIYer, revealing that there are six dominant factors: necessity, territorial marking, self-expression, leisure, perfection-seeking and therapy. “Common psychological meanings behind DIY include feelings of safety, status and love,” it said.
According to Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology and health, women are natural nest-builders, more likely to enjoy the self-expression and creativity of DIY. “They are also more likely to be at home more of the time. . . more likely to spot things that need being done,” he says.
So while it makes sense that they are taking on more home improvement duties, his concern, in this new dynamic, is that this will encourage men to be farther removed from family life. “If men start taking on other duties, such as looking after the children, because they’re not doing DIY, then that’s a positive outcome, but I fear that they might end up doing nothing, leaving more and more to women.”
Cooper even questions whether men are as suited to DIY as we have always imagined. “Women are often better at detail; they are methodological and good at following instructions,” he says.
So is spanner-wielding man dying out, to be replaced by sofa-man who absolves himself of all responsibility after his hard day at the office?
Not according to scientists in Princeton University who made the link between men picking up power tools and sexual desire. In February last year, a study by neuroscientists found that looking at images of women’s bodies activates the same part of men’s brains associated with using power tools. In both cases, it is the urge to take action that affects this part of the brain, known as the premotor cortex.
The study led scientists to link manly endeavours around the home with the promise of sex. In other words primeval man earned rewards in the bedroom for his efforts in the cave. Which perhaps explains why men have been wired to show such enthusiasm for DIY.
This, along with the fact that tasks often require strength, is also why manliness is embedded in the DIY industry, and why we tend to argue about it so much.
“DIY shows up who wears the trousers, or more accurately, who is in charge,” says Marshall. “If a couple are having their bathroom redone and the wife has taken on the project, they might find their whole relationship out of kilter for several months. The subtle power balance is thrown and it can be difficult for both parties to adapt.”
Fortunately for Berry, there is no such conflict as her boyfriend, she says, is not a practical man.
“He’s an IT person and he has so many other skills I need help with, such as website building,” she says.
This is a whole new expanding arena in which men can show off their skills. Modern man might struggle to change a fuse, but if he can sort out your frozen laptop and set up the new DVD player, then he’s probably worth keeping around.