Twenty-first-century women are well-educated and successful — and our partners are often enlightened and supportive. Yet when it comes to divvying up domestic labor, dated dynamics often still play out. According to an analysis by Oxfam recently reported in The New York Times, women's unpaid labor amounts to $10.9 trillion annually.
In the U.S., that translates to women performing approximately four hours of unpaid labor per day in addition to their full-time jobs, while men only average about 2.5 hours. And the pandemic has only made things worse. One study revealed that women are less likely than men to have kept working in their usual workplace during COVID-19 — and that consequently, 68% of women spent more time on housework versus only 40% of men.
To find out what to do about it, Women at Work turned to Eve Rodsky, author of The New York Times best-seller "Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live)" for answers about how women can lessen their physical and emotional loads by learning to ask their partners for help. Rodsky, who also created the Fair Play Deck, which can help couples focus their discussions about equitably shouldering domestic tasks and child care responsibilities, explains why leveling the playing field when it comes to domestic responsibilities is about more than who does the laundry — it's about equity for women.
Why are we still having these same arguments?
When we fight over domestic work like who's doing the dishes or going grocery shopping, we're actually playing out the gendered conditioning that has been ingrained in us for 100 years. And that's why we end up in the same pattern, decade after decade. We need to have a reckoning over two things: First, we have to center and value caregiving as essential infrastructure in our society. And, second, we have to understand that we've built every developed society on the backs of the unpaid labor of women. We've also undervalued the labor of women of color who have stepped in for women of a higher social class, who have often been white women, to do their child care and housework. Yet we've never asked men to step up. We've been taught that these issues are part of our private lives, but they're actually very public issues.
How did we get here?
Most households these days are dual-income and rely on women's earnings. Yet, we've done literally nothing to value or redistribute the housework and child care provided by women. Women have also been conditioned to say things to ourselves like My husband (or domestic partner) makes more money than me, so it's OK. My job is more flexible. Women are better multitaskers. In the time it takes me to explain to him what needs to be done, I could do it myself. As a result, we've been complicit in our oppression because we've been taught to devalue our time.
Where's the starting point for change?
As a culture, we've had the conversation of the life-changing magic of organizing our junk drawers, but what about the life-changing magic of long-term thinking for women? We have to start by recognizing how important care and housework are to the functioning of our society — and having men do it, too. My moonshot: That holding our children's hand for an hour at the pediatrician's office becomes just as valuable as an hour in the boardroom.
How do we have those conversations?
Well, terms like "invisible work" and "invisible labor" are getting more traction now in popular culture, which is great because that means there's a vernacular for talking about this. And we need to make the invisible become visible by talking about it and valuing it. The ideas in "Fair Play" are ultimately part of a larger political movement that calls for paid leave and universal child care, but there's actually a lot you can do to take agency in your own house.
Like what? How can couples begin to actually redefine and redistribute work at home?
Start by having a conversation about how domestic tasks — like all others — require conception, planning, and execution.
Next, women need to set boundaries. Women need to learn to demand as much time choice over our day as men have. We have to recognize that all time is created equal and our time is as valuable as our male counterparts.
Women also need to learn to communicate on this topic. Women saying they can't talk about domestic life because it's too triggering, or that when their partner forgets to put the laundry in the dryer, they dump it on his pillow, or that they leave shoes on the stairs praying somebody eventually will pick them up — these tactics don't work. So, talk about this topic when emotion is low and cognition is high to communicate that it's important for cis-gendered men and domestic partners who earn more to do child care and housework.
We also need to create systems that lay out who's going to do what in the home — and men need to develop an "ownership mindset" for their tasks from start to finish, with all the cognitive labor, conception and planning, and execution that's needed. Just assigning random, one-off tasks won't work.
Do you think these changes can really happen?
Yes! I'm optimistic they can. But technology's not going to be what solves this problem; neither is women talking to each other. We have to invite men into their full power in the home so that women can step out into their full power in the world. That's what's going to make women's lives better and help the generation that comes after us.