DAY 2 | BY FRANCESCA DONNER
Who’s Doing the Dishes?
Second shift, mental load, worry work, unpaid labor — frame it how you will, women are doing more of it than men. Everywhere the world over, women spend more time than men on things like cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, caring for family members.
Even countries held up as the gold standard of equity — Norway! Sweden! Denmark! — have a gap in the amount of unpaid labor women do compared with men. “There is not a single country where the gap is zero,” wrote Melinda Gates in “The Moment of Lift.”
In the U.S., women spend around four hours a day on unpaid work compared with men’s 2.5 hours according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Those hours add up to 10.5 more hours per week and 546 more hours per year. While it’s true the gap has narrowed since the U.S. started collecting this data in 1965, women still do a disproportionate amount of unpaid work — and that’s on top of their paid jobs.
“Unequal unpaid work blocks a woman’s path to empowerment.”
— Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, author of “The Moment of Lift”
The unequal share of unpaid labor matters because more hours spent on unpaid work, means fewer hours spent on paid work. And that’s the kind of work that advances people financially and politically.
“These are hours that could be spent on income generation,” said Nahla Valji, the senior gender adviser to the Secretary General of the United Nations. “It’s at the heart of the ‘motherhood penalty,’ wage inequality, structural biases in recruitment, and promotion of women and jobs.”
For years, unpaid work was overlooked by economists who “didn’t recognize unpaid work as work,” noted Ms. Gates. This failure “became even more absurd as more women entered the formal workforce.” They’d do a full day of work and then come home to cleaning, cooking and caring.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2003 that the Bureau of Labor Statistics even began counting housework and childcare in its time use surveys, more than a decade after a member of Congress first tried to introduce a bill to require it. (The bill was rejected in 1991, 1993 and 1995, writes Ms. Gates. That’s how unimportant unpaid work was deemed.)
But as anyone at the kitchen sink knows, the work keeps piling up.
A New York Times Opinion piece suggested that if American women earned minimum wage for the unpaid work they do around the house and caring for relatives, they would have made $1.5 trillion last year.
Then came Covid-19.
If unpaid work was rendered next to invisible before, the pandemic thrust it into the spotlight.
With children out of school, day cares closed, community centers and camps shuttered, and the needs of the elderly and sick magnified, the responsibilities fell where they almost always do: on the shoulders of women. But this time the work wasn’t so easily ignored as male partners were on lockdown, too.
Did it make a difference? Not so much.
A survey by The New York Times found that men and women weren’t dividing the work any differently or more equitably than they were before the lockdown even though the men thought they were. In the survey, 70 percent of women said they are fully or mostly responsible for housework during lockdown, and 66 percent said so for child care. That’s “roughly the same shares as in typical times,” wrote The New York Times reporter Claire Cain Miller.
Also in keeping with “typical times,” a 2020 study from Catalyst, a global nonprofit focused on women’s leadership, found that of parents who were working from home during lockdown, women were twice as likely as men to be primarily responsible for their children’s homeschooling.
Beyond homeschooling, there are a lot of chores that fall into unpaid labor’s proverbial (wash) bucket. While every household is different, in the U.S. things like child care, cooking and cleaning are pretty typical, alongside other errands. Also a big time suck: keeping track of the thankless list of mental tasks that keep a household running, like making doctor’s appointments and writing grocery lists.
But the division of who gets which chores is gendered, too.
Men are more likely to pick up the slack on parenting duties, but when it comes to dishes or laundry, not so much. Men are also more likely to do tasks that happen once a week or less often — washing the car, say, or doing yard work — whereas women are more likely to pick up the tasks that need to be done multiple times a day — like, you guessed it, washing dishes.
All of this matters for several reasons.
Beyond the sheer annoyance for many women of doing the lioness’s share of the dirty work, as we know, more time spent on unpaid labor means less time spent elsewhere.
Now let’s look at the time people spend working for pay. Pre-Covid, men in the U.S. were spending nearly six hours per day on paid work, compared with just four hours for women. Want to guess how the difference in hours was spent? Yup, it was housework. (Even though men work more paid hours than women, they spend more time on leisure activities than women.)
And that causes career problems for women, because less time spent on paid work means less time positioning oneself for plum assignments or promotions. It often results in women sticking it out in lower-paying, less-senior roles even if they’re quite capable of taking on more. And it’s far worse for women in jobs with few benefits and low job security, where a sick kid can mean the difference between having a job and losing one.
In its 2017 Commission on the Status of Women, the U.N. noted, “unpaid care and domestic work supports the economy and often makes up for lack of public expenditure on social services and infrastructure. In effect, it represents a transfer of resources from women to others in the economy.”
And there’s only one word for that: unfair.
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