Fairly valuing woman’s work is about more than cash

Alia’s post highlights how hard it is for employed women to find a happy mix of hours spent working versus caregiving. The issue stems, in part, from feeling that others don’t fairly value the time that working women spend on kids and household chores.

Bean counters can estimate the dollar value of household work. A couple could, say, use the U.S. Labor Department’s list of occupational wages to calculate that the five minutes a wife spends wiping down the table after dinner is worth about 90 cents. But that estimate doesn’t include all of the benefits that her family picks up with each swipe of the dishtowel. Children watching their mother clean after dinner learn to value a hygienic home and to take responsibility for caring for their property and the health of loved ones.

Here’s another issue: For women who like their jobs, paid employment is typically more interesting than doing another load of dishes. So even when a woman makes less than her partner, she may still feel like she’s giving up a lot — pay and psychological benefits — by taking on the lion’s share of housework.

While looking for data about household work, I came across an interesting table from the Labor Department’s annual estimate of how Americans use their time. Among employed adults with kids under 6, men work about 1.7 hours more than women per day. Employed women spend those 1.7 hours caring for kids, cooking and cleaning, among other activities.


Of note, even while an employed woman is at the office, she frequently acts as the default parent and homemaker, dealing with school nurses calling to get a sniffling kid picked up and arranging for the plumber to fix a burst pipe, all while responding to requests from her boss.

In homes where there’s a substantial pay difference between employed adults, an uneven split for household chores may be satisfactory. But even in these families, the division of labor may be too stratified, with working women’s household chores significantly undervalued.

Increasing men’s appreciation for the full economic worth of caregiving could help families move closer to a system that feels fair to each adult. When more men carve out more time to spend with their kids and at home, a greater share of the country will have a stake in properly valuing “woman’s work.”



Women navigating work and family

As a woman in the U.S., having kids and a job outside of the home is a complicated and occasionally fraught life. Despite steps forward in terms of workplace equality — pregnancy non-discrimination and the Family and Medical Leave Act, for example — women still struggle to accommodate the demands of earning a living and having and caring for kids and family. More so if you’re a single parent, poor, undocumented, non-white or disabled.

We think that the heart of the problem lies in “woman’s work” — the way that the responsibilities of caring for the home, family and community continue to fall almost exclusively on women and girls. (OK, guys, before you jump up and say, “but I change diapers and do laundry too!,” hold off on your knee-jerk reactions and keep reading…)

This is a blog about how women are navigating work and family at home, the office, and in society at large. We don’t promise answers, but we’ll try to unravel the multiple ways that “woman’s work” can be both burdensome and rewarding and how, at the end of the day, women are getting it done.

–Alia and Ruth

There’s no award for keeping track of infant Tylenol

My husband and I have an ongoing “debate” about how much income we each should generate to be secure. I view income as just one part of the equation when calculating our “fair shares,” the other parts being everything it takes to create and maintain a family and home. Though he claims to “get it,” my husband insists on looking at our/my income and earning ability (i.e., paid labor) in isolation from the rest of our lives.

I’ve oriented my current employment around having small children. I work as an independent contractor with a guaranteed 15 days per month and pretty much complete freedom to work wherever and whenever I want. To secure this arrangement, I accepted a relatively low daily rate and I have no benefits — no paid time off, no maternity leave, and no employer-sponsored health insurance or retirement plan.

After years of making six figures, with fancy titles and full benefits to boot, I didn’t enter this arrangement lightly. It took a lot of negotiation, trial and error and time to work out the details. All the while I had a running conversation in my head about whether this is what I really wanted; whether I was selling myself short; whether my career would permanently veer off track. But for the life of me, I couldn’t picture having a conventional full-time job — one where you have to be physically present for at least 40 hours a week and mentally occupied for much more than that — while also raising two kids under 5.

Many, including myself, will be quick to point out that mine is a privileged problem to have. Far more women lack my options and resources, and they are juggling work, kids, family, life on little more than their own resilience and determination. But to simply accept that I should just be grateful for what I have obscures the underlying problem —everywhere in the world, “women’s work” is marginalized, invisible, even belittled, despite the fact that families, communities, entire societies depend on it for survival.

The fact that I can single-handedly provide the physical, mental, and emotional labor required to run a household and nurture a family and also earn income is no small feat. But this capacity, this skill doesn’t factor into my husband’s calculations with respect to our individual economic contributions. In fact, he thinks a lot of what I do is optional and/or could be replaced by purchasing more convenience products or by outsourcing the labor (no doubt to women of lower economic and educational status than us).

No one denies men the psychological connection between their labor (i.e., paid work) and their identity or questions the value it adds to the public and private spheres. In fact, our social, economic, and political institutions are built around helping straight white men compete in the economy and achieve. Paid work is organized around the “ideal worker” —someone who can work 40 or more hours per week and has a wife at home taking care of everything else. Men aren’t socialized to perform care work, and when they do, their noblesse oblige is lauded, as if they’d just discovered a cure for cancer.

In contrast, no one gives women awards for making sure there are clean sheets on the beds; scouring the Internet for how to deal (cope) with toddlers’ temper tantrums; being the heavy when it comes to disciplining kids; and, for the thousandth time, telling your husband where we keep the infant Tylenol. There’s no material reward for staying up all night to meet a work deadline while your partner is traveling and the kids have been home sick. At best, there’s saccharin rhetoric about the virtuous (middle-class) mother, which is a thinly-veiled strategy for convincing women to continue shouldering the burden of caring for the world so that men, the private sector, and governments don’t have to.


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