Thursday, June 17, 2010

Gender and Housework

There is an article on getting help with housework on the Science Careers website. It is based on an article in the magazine of the American Association of University Professors, Academe, Housework is an Academic Issue, by Londa Schiebinger and Shannon K. Gilmartin. Schiebinger and Gilmartin's article is based on research on dual career couples in academia, Dual-Career Academic Couples: What Universities Need to Know. They analysed survey results from 910 men and 312 women with partners of the other sex. (There were not enough same-sex partners for quantitative analysis.) Among other things they found that there are no significant differences between male and female academic scientists in the number of paid hours worked (see Figure 4 of their article) but considerable differences between male and female scientists in the amount of time spent on household tasks: female scientists do twice as much housework as their male counterparts.. They also found that the task most likely to be outsourced is cleaning and the group most likely to outsource cleaning are women scientists with an academic partner. For both men and women outsourcing housework is associated with higher productivity. Schiebinger and Gilmartin suggest as a policy recommendation that institutions consider offering 'cafeteria' or 'flexistyle' benefits packages from which employees could choose benefits up to a specified amount, for example, some might choose assistance with housework, others help with child care and others help with elder care.

The Science Careers article focussed on hiring help with childcare and housework. It includes an interview with a female professor at MIT whose husband is a professor at Harvard who have a nanny, a cleaner and someone who comes in to cook twice a week as well as being able to leave the children with their grandparents if they need to be away for conferences. As an illustration of a possible solution to coping with the demands of an academic job it is excellent. However, Isisthescientist, in a post about the hoary old question of whether men and women differ in their aptitude for science and maths, mentioned the reaction of another women scientist blogger to the Science Careers article. Essentially this was that the article appeared to take for granted that women need advice on coping with housework but men do not. The editor of Science Careers, Jim Austin, responded to these remarks on the Science Careers blog leading to further discussion at Isisthescientist. I think we need to appreciate that women are not a homogenous group. Some women will have found the article helpful: others may feel that it reinforces stereotypes rather than challenging them. The head of department who advises new female assistant professors to get over people's expectations of what women should do around the house and get paid help with housework is still better than one who does not recognise the issue at all, even if the advice could equally apply to new male assistant professors. Likewise a head of department who tells female lecturers going on maternity leave about the university's flexible working policies but not male lecturers going on paternity leave is still better than one who gives the impression that anyone who works part time is lacking commitment. We should celebrate progress, even if it is tiny incremental steps.

A related post from a different blog is How did we get here?, in which a male doctor ponders how it came about that, by default, he became the primary earner while his wife stays at home. Comment 4 is particularly interesting.

I wonder if the asymmetry between maternity leave entitlement and paternity leave entitlement is a factor in women becoming the default stay at home partner? Note I am not saying the only factor. Of course factors like husband earns more, husband is at a crucial stage of career and you would quite like to have at least one income, the difficulty of finding flexible work and cultural and family expectations are important. I just wonder whether patterns who does what become established while the mother is on maternity leave and then become difficult to break when she goes back to work.

Over the years I have met quite a few women whose careers have been compromised or effectively ended by their decision to spend time with their children. I cannot recall one of them saying that they wished they had spent less time with their children. I have met men who wished they had spent more time with their children. If we want real equality then we have to acknowledge that parents want to spend time with their children, regardless of whether they are the father or the mother. Men are people too.


  1. As a professional woman reading this post while her cleaner does the ironing, I completely agree that domestic help is one seemingly small, but actually very significant strategy that the women I work with have started to embrace. That is not to say that my decision (and yes, it was motivated and paid for by me, and not my husband (though he earns more) was not stressful as I felt I SHOULD be able to clean my own house as well as manage everything else. Once I was able to get over my own guilty conscience, it has been smooth sailing ever since - and that amount of work I get done in the time the cleaner is here is amazing - and probably part of my motivation!

  2. That's interesting, Suzanne. I, too, once thought that I OUGHT to be able to clean the house as well as do science. It was a meeting of women in science where a speaker pointed out that paying someone else to do jobs that you don't want to do in order to spend more time doing things that you do want to do, whether that's science or taking your children to the beach, is a rational strategy, if you can afford it, that convinced me otherwise.