I highly recommend this piece from Harper’s.
The subtitle really says it all: “Emotional labor is the unpaid job men still don’t understand.” In this article, Gemma Hartley relates the experience of asking for her male partner to hire a house cleaning service as her Mother’s Day gift. Doing this job well required labor–calling around, getting quotes, getting recommendations, finding the best service, negotiating a contract. It’s the sort of labor that women do, unasked and unthanked, every day. And let’s just say up front: Hiring a cleaning service is a comparatively easy, first-world kind of task. But for Hartley’s husband–who she tells us is “a good man, and a good feminist ally,” and I believe her–this request was quite a struggle. (Read the story to get the full gist.)
Hartley relates this experience to explain a larger phenomenon–that in which women in heterosexual relationships have become household managers. Or rather, have continued to be household managers (a role once referred to as homemaking) while also holding down full-time jobs. This is not a new revelation; a lot has been published on the “second shift.” Even women with husbands who are “good feminist allies” find that they are the taskmasters, keepers of the lists, organizers of the schedules, makers of appointments, planners of meals, and so on. They are the ones required to take the initiative to keep the household running. Even the best male partners often only help when asked. And, as Hartley says in response to a simple cleaning task, “I don’t want to have to ask.”
And when women ask too much or too often, or when they complain about this constellation (I can’t call it a division) of labor? Well, there’s a word for that. Nag. (Actually, there are a lot of words for that. Nag is a relatively nice one.)
Disturbingly, and Hartley doesn’t so much go into this, the women-as-bearers-of-labor role extends beyond the home and into the workplace. In my academic department, for example, we have four administrative roles. These are sometimes hard to fill because they take away from the time needed for research, which is needed for promotion–in other words, they often equate to unrewarded labor. All of these positions are held by women (and, yes, our department has more men than women available to serve). We also have a committee that is known for being time-consuming, and I just sat through a faculty meeting where the only three straight white men who were eligible declined to serve. Meanwhile, every single person not bearing these characteristics (a total of 7) have already served. Why? Because we are expected to and, unlike the men, will be punished if we do not. This is anecdotal evidence, but the research supports it.
So, what to do? Well, it’s far more complicated than this, but here’s a start. Men, pay attention and take initiative–at home and in the workplace. Do the work. Do NOT ask a woman what work needs to be done or how to do it–figure it out yourself, and then do it. And don’t expect to be thanked. And keep doing it. Even when you’re tired. Especially when you’re tired. Also, point out when you see women being asked to do free labor, give them options for refusal when possible, and point out when you see them being pressured or put down for refusing. Do this especially when it is a risk to your reputation. And women: Say no and don’t feel bad about it. Make it a goal to say no at least once a week. Don’t apologize for it. And do your level best to make it apparent when you experience retribution for refusing to do uncompensated labor.
(I just gave the guys more work. That was on purpose. They have more work to do.)