Marie Kondo’s show shines spotlight on women’s unpaid labor

Marie Kondo speaks during an interview

A hit Netflix show featuring a Japanese guru who claims decluttering can change your life has sparked a global craze for tidying — and shone a light on the amount of unpaid work still done by women.

“Tidying up with Marie Kondo” was released by US streaming giant Netflix this month and her “KonMari” approach to tidying — keeping only things that “spark joy” — has taken the world by a storm.

But critics said the eight-episode series, in which Kondo helps American families tidy their houses, had also revealed a clear gender divide, with men feeling less concerned about and accountable for domestic mess.

In one episode, a wife says her husband told her “cleaning is sexy” and he was more romantic after their house became tidy. In another, a husband proclaimed cleaning “wasn’t my priority.”

“This is a problem around the world, a problem in both developing and developed countries,” said Joni Simpson, an expert on gender equality at the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO).

Gender inequality has persisted in households across the globe, with women performing three-quarters of unpaid work such as cleaning, cooking and looking after children, according to a report released by the ILO last year.

It found the problem was particularly acute in Asia Pacific, where men perform the lowest share of unpaid work — an average of 64 minutes each day, compared to 262 minutes for women.

The care burden can prevent women from taking on full-time jobs or trap them in lower-level roles, creating a wage disparity between the sexes, Simpson said.

It can also lead to employers discriminating against women because they are perceived as the primary caretaker, she said.

“Women basically end up paying a penalty for motherhood and having a family,” Simpson said.

Simpson hoped the show would shine a light on inequalities at home that have “remained in the shadows for so long.” 

Men have contributed more towards unpaid work over the last two decades — but only by an additional seven minutes each day — and it would take 210 years to close the gender gap, the ILO report said.

Malaysian mother Zuraidah Adnan, who became a Kondo fan after she binge-watched the Netflix series recently, said she had decluttered her home — but was still trying to convince her husband to help.

The mother of six, who runs a private clinic with her husband, said it was time for men to “get the message” that unpaid domestic work was no longer women’s sole responsibility.

“If you do it together, it brings you closer,” she said.

The McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of global consultancy firm McKinsey, warned in a report last year that trapping women in unpaid work hampered economic growth.

It urged countries to prioritize boosting female workforce participation, with measures like expanding affordable childcare and putting in place policies of parental leave as well as flexible working.    

“The emphasis of such efforts should be to open the way for women not only to work, but to work in quality jobs,” Anu Madgavkar, a partner at the MGI based in Mumbai, said in an email.

Named as one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2015, Kondo gained worldwide fame and cult-like following among her fans, known as the “Konverts,” with her best-selling book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”.

The book has been translated from Japanese to more than 40 languages, with more than eight million copies sold around the world.

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