I have a theory that blogs all consist of people responding to their social media feeds. Mine seems to be.
Today I was browsing my Twitter feed, and I came across an article that said “New research has found that more than 1 in 5 female students have previously been told that they cannot or should not do something because they are a woman.”
The number one thing that the survey respondents reported they’d been discouraged from doing (73% gave this answer) was “build flat-pack furniture.”
As it happens, I wrote a bit about gender differences in assembling furniture in the new edition of The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation. So I thought I would share it with you:
Some Assembly Required
When you walked through the clean, stylish Swedish furniture store, you imagined yourself living in the perfectly decorated mini-rooms with pleasure and optimism. Then you took home a box of wooden slats, metal bolts and a diagram. Your future began to seem much less rosy very fast. If figuring out how to get part A into slot B has driven you to utter choice four letter words, throw things around the room; even threatened to derail your marriage, you are not alone.
It seems that IKEA related complaints come up frequently in couples therapy. “Couples tend to extrapolate from the small conflicts that arise while shopping for and building furniture that perhaps they aren’t so made for one another after all,” Maisie Chou Chaffin, a London-based clinical psychologist told The Atlantic.
There are real gender differences, and gendered cultural expectations, about the assembly of furniture. A few years ago after Norway’s prime minister accused IKEA of sexism for showing only men in its instruction manuals, the company responded by adding more women and arguing that, in fact, women were better at assembling their products than men were. Petra Hesser, who was then the head of IKEA’s Germany division said “A woman will neatly lay out all the screws while a man will throw them in a pile,” Hesser said. “Something always goes missing.”
So researchers set out to test the hypothesis and found 1. There is something to Hesser’s description of how men and women approach “some assembly required” tasks and 2. Her conclusion that women do a better job was entirely wrong. A Norweigan research team asked 40 men and 40 women in their twenties to assemble a kitchen cart. Some people got the instructions, others only received a a drawing of what the end product should look like. When they had the instructions, men and women took the same amount of time (about 23 minutes) to put the thing together, and both had equally impressive, or unimpressive results.
When they had to figure things out from the drawing, there was a 20 percent difference between men and women in terms of how long it took to complete the task. The women also assembled more faulty carts with missing shelves or railings. In all, men with no instructions did about as well as the men with the instructions, finishing only a minute slower and not making enough mistakes to make the difference statistically meaningful. So Hesser was right, women do take a more systematic approach, because they need to. Men’s habit of throwing the instructions aside can be a source of frustration and argument.
Studies have long identified differences in spatial ability between men and women. The science is still out, however, as to whether this is the result of nature or nurture. In one study, researchers had subjects from two genetically similar but culturally distinct tribes in Northeast India complete a visual puzzle. One of the tribes as patriarchal. There women performed more slowly than the men. In the tribe where women ruled, there were no gender differences in performance. In another study, women were asked to imagine that they were men when doing a mental rotation test. When they did, they performed just as well as the men did. They also did better when they were told ahead of time that women usually outperformed the men. So women’s slower times and reliance on instructions might be the result of conditioning and a lack of confidence.
Of course, individual results vary, and not every man who thinks he can do a great job without the instructions actually can. As writer Jon Tevlin said, “I know from personal experience that using only pictures of men assembling IKEA furniture can lead some to believe… that men actually CAN assemble IKEA furniture.”
The expectation that every man should be able to creates tension. It doesn’t take a lot of tension to drive a wedge between members of a couple. In a 2014 study, researchers at Monmouth University and Ursinus College studied the affect of frustration on romantic feelings. They split 120 subjects into two groups. One was given the simple, stress-free task– writing down numbers chronologically; the other, a set of difficult math problems. When they had finished both groups were asked to make a list of compliments about their partner. The stressed group identified 15% fewer admirable traits in their beloveds.
The main way to avoid furniture assembly frustration, say the experts, is to go easy on yourself and allow plenty of time to get the job done. Walk away and come back if you have to. If that doesn’t work, maybe you need to buy pre-assembled furniture. No one wants to have a half-assembled vanity listed as an asset in a divorce proceeding.