As we tentatively look toward a post-pandemic world where the masks begin to come off and the offices start to reopen, it’s past time we start having some tough conversations about the invisible labor of women.
Like so many things the past year, the pandemic yanked back the curtain on what has long been true in our society: Women do the vast majority of the unpaid, unrecognized work in families and in workplaces.
At home, women in heterosexual relationships do the majority of child care, household chores and household management. At work, women are 44% more likely to be asked to volunteer for “unpromotable” but time-consuming work tasks, according to research published in the Harvard Business Review. Further, the research showed that when asked to volunteer, men said yes only 51% percent of the time where women said yes 76% of the time.
This disparity at work was highlighted recently when the CEO of Washingtonian Media, Cathy Merrill, wrote a Washington Post op-ed arguing for workers to return to the physical office, writing that 20% of an employee’s job are the “extras” you can only achieve in an office, such as celebrating birthdays and supporting junior staff.
But who does those extras? Usually women, and it doesn’t benefit their careers.
Laura Hazard Owen wrote in response to Merrill’s piece in Nieman Lab, “Working remotely for the last year has revealed just how much of office culture is accidental, arbitrary, and sexist. Much of what’s lumped in with unpaid ‘culture’ should be identified and divided equitably.”
The blowback to Merrill’s piece was swift, with the staff of the magazine refusing to publish for a day in response. But Merrill’s view is not outside the norm.
The workplace and societal structures that consider care of all kinds to be undervalued “women’s work” have led to what some economists are calling the “female recession.” According to the news site The 19th, mothers reduced their work hours four to five times more often than men to care for children during the pandemic, leaving female unemployment in the double digits for the first time since 1948. For women of color — particularly Black women and Latinas — the unemployment rate was even worse.
The lack of affordable and available child care is a key driver of this inequality. As Emily Peck wrote in The New York Times, child care is critical national infrastructure — as important as bridges and roads — but is treated as just a nice thing to have, versus an economic necessity.
“The tension here is what Nancy Folbre and other feminist economists first started working on decades ago, and what policymakers have just caught up with, barely: that a system where working parents do not have reliable, affordable child care is one where they cannot reliably build a career,” Peck wrote.
The role of child care as critical economic infrastructure is finally getting some real attention. In March, President Joe Biden included funding for child care, paid family leave, universal pre-K and care for older adults and people with disabilities in his $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which faces opposition in Congress.
Part of shifting that opposition will be ending the expectation that women are just “naturally” supposed to take on a disproportionate share of the burden of invisible labor in our homes and workplaces.
There is nothing biological or inherent about women taking on a disproportionate amount of hidden labor or for one half of a couple to bear a higher burden than another when both work outside the home.
In dual-income families, for example, a study by the Families and Work Institute showed that only 38% of heterosexual couples shared child care duties. In contrast, in same-sex relationships, the study showed 74% of couples shared responsibility for care.
Interestingly, even with decades of studies and hordes of evidence about the “second shift” of unpaid labor that falls on women, men in heterosexual relationships seem to live in a state of denial about how much they are actually doing. In study after study, men consistently say they share equally in the housework, and women consistently disagree.
Overhauling our child care system so there is free, universal care would be a great first step to leveling the playing field.
But to create a broader cultural and paradigm shift, the invisible labor that falls on women needs to be called what it is: labor. And just because “learned helplessness” — the belief that men are less capable of household tasks or child care because many haven’t had to do them — may make it seem that women are somehow inherently better at it, the truth is we are not.
Caring for children, caring for older adults, cleaning, cooking and organizing office celebrations are examples of the kind of hidden work that in some cases need greater support and resources from the government and in others, need a more equitable division of labor.
Until that happens, women will not have the equality at home or opportunities for advancement in our careers that we deserve.