It’s uncanny how the Australian media so often choose Sunday — the traditional day of rest — to promote traditional social values. In January we heard all about “basic female skills”. Now tell us via AAP: “Career women happy to do household work, study finds”.

Check out News’s helpful dot-points:

  • Career women proud to do housework
  • Some “progressive” women even enjoy it
  • Over 85% did most household chores

Here’s what I personally took from the article:

  • 85% of women do housework because their partners screw up basic tasks
  • 49% would get a cleaner if they could afford one

Intriguingly, the only major media outlet to pick up on this angle was the Sunday Herald Sun. Under the headline “Mums refusing to share the household load”, the Hez led with: “Time-poor working women are struggling to hand over household chores to their partners as they believe they do a better job.”

Nowhere do we hear what “enjoyment” of housework means. Perhaps it’s the satisfaction of creating a clean, orderly environment from a chaotic one. Or maybe the repetitive, manual nature of domestic labour offers a “zone-out” reprieve from intellectually demanding occupations.

The AAP story simply reads as an excuse for and celebration of the continued unequitable division of domestic labour. This angle also showed up in Seven News and Sky News (“Career women happy to do laundry”), the Sydney Morning Herald (“Housework not a dirty word for working women”) and The West Australian (“Career women ‘proud’ of housework”).

The Wringing Out The Future report was commissioned in December last year ahead of the launch of a new laundry liquid, Biozet Attack Ecosmart. Dr Gwyneth Howell, who conducted qualitative and quantitative surveys of 600 women in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, did not do so in her capacity as a senior lecturer in PR at the University of Western Sydney, but as a private consultant.

“But the university’s been 100% behind us, they’ve been handling media enquiries as well,” said Lorraine Turley of IMPACT Communications, which packaged the report.

Turley also told Crikey that the university’s imprimatur was important to lend credibility and rigour to the research, and to ensure it was conducted according to an independent code of ethics.

The seven-page précis of the findings (downloadable here as a PDF) defines progressive women as aged 30-45, tertiary educated, working an average of 50 hours per week and living in households that earn more than $90,000 per annum.

This is not really what many people associate with the word “progressive”, much as housework is not really what many people associate with “enjoyment”. However, the attitudes uncovered are interesting because they don’t always fit into the simple “men’s-versus-women’s workload” and “hooray for traditionally gendered domestic labour” narratives that news stories seem to prefer.

Here are some other points Crikey picked from the report:

  • 59% of respondents “state that feminism is as important in 2011 as it ever was”
  • Only 37% of respondents’ aspirations for household management stem from their mother’s practices
  • 86% sought smarter ways to get housework done “to free their time to do the things that matter most in their lives”

The claim that women love housework is based on a single sentence in the report. It’s worth noting that even the most-enjoyed task — cooking — was only enjoyed by 28% of survey respondents.

But the AAP story leaves us with the conclusion that women are “enjoying” domestic labour because they are women and that’s what women most enjoy.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s comments about the value of work have similarly been misquoted in the media, as Grog’s Gamut has adroitly pointed out.

We need to be much more critical of the way traditionalism and “traditional values” are creeping into mainstream media coverage. If all we hear of Gillard’s speeches is that she bangs on about setting your alarm clocks early, embracing manual labour and shrinking from the progressive types who are likely to vote Green, then no wonder we form an impression that Gillard — and Australian society — is growing more conservative.

This past Sunday, while women were loving their laundry, The Sunday Age ran a front-page story bemoaning that kids don’t know their Bible stories, “and our culture may be the poorer for it”.

“Prime Minister Julia Gillard would agree,” continued senior journalist John Elder. “An atheist, Ms Gillard believes Australians need to understand the Bible because it ‘has formed such an important part of our culture’.”

Presuming that Gillard would agree with The Sunday Age’s traditionalist proposition is a similar sleight-of-hand to that performed by journalists surrounding the Wringing Out The Future report.

Too often, journalists can set their professional sights too high — on breaking big stories, uncovering institutionalised hypocrisy and minutely analysing political events. Sometimes, the responsibility to be Australia’s fourth estate — our public moral voice — can be a little closer to home … or even in the home itself.

If our news media publish muddied tendentious stories about social values, it’s little wonder our own discussions, and the ways we treat each other, are just as muddied and tendentious.

I’ll leave you with my favourite reader comment on this story, from someone called “blah”: “I don’t have a partner so I do 100% of everything. woo.”

Now that’s happiness.

Peter Fray

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