The 3 young women (mid-20s) behind me were talking rather loudly. I was trying not to listen but it was hard on a busy train and naturally, I am nosy. They were planning their weekend and what they were going to do when they get home. One lives with a male partner and was talking about having to get the cleaning done. She uses the phrase ‘women’s work’ in a matter-of-fact way and the other two pass no comment.
I was a bit surprised and saddened. Why are the household domestics still often seen as women’s work? It comes up a lot in our working mothers’ coaching programmes. I meet women all the time overburdened by the unpaid work of home whilst managing a busy work life too. The statistics support it. ONS analysis of time use data shows that women put in more than double the proportion of unpaid work when it comes to cooking, childcare and housework.
Holding up a mirror to ourselves
As working women, we have to start holding a mirror up to ourselves. It is no good blaming the men in our lives for not doing their bit. It starts with us acknowledging the significant part we play in perpetuating this. Are we holding beliefs around what we ‘should’ be doing that aren’t actually helping us? That domestic tasks are women’s work?
I’ll confess I may have had a historical belief of what a ‘good’ working mother which was more akin to Stepford wives that the reality of my life. ‘Good’ should be turning out perfectly cooked meals in a spotless house, whilst happily playing with my children, being at the school gate for drop off and pick up whilst delivering a perfect performance in my high-powered job. I’m not sure my husband even played a role in this picture other than working, mowing the lawn and putting the bins out. (I exaggerate for effect but hopefully, you get what I mean). Being on maternity leave didn’t help me with this as I started to naturally pick up more of our domestic life at home whilst my husband was at work playing out to my traditional assumptions about what a ‘good’ mother was.
This belief wasn’t conscious but it did impact the decisions and assumptions that I made. It might have been ok whilst on leave but adding work into the mix meant the reality was impossible to live up to and was actually at odds with other beliefs I hold. I have also always believed that men and women are equal in their ability to work and in their ability to do unpaid work at home. I had to get more conscious of and drop my, unsupportive and unhelpful beliefs.
Addressing the imbalance
So, once we have done this, how do we address the imbalance that we may be in place? Firstly, linked to the above, in relation to the domestics at home, we have to think what is truly important to us, what needs to get done and how do we do it. A particular time to do this review is after a period of parental leave as I highlighted. I speak to many parents who haven’t re-negotiated who is doing what once they return to work leading to resentment and arguments.
It means sitting down with a piece of paper and detailing what has to get done at home. Then prioritise the list. Some of the things on the list will be essential, some may be important because they bring some wellbeing to both of you/ one of you and some of the items on the list might not actually be that important but we do them because we think we should. Then fairly allocate who is going to do the items, you, your partner or where it is affordable, outsource. Try and align it with what you enjoy doing and what you are good at. Ditch the items that aren’t actually important.
Thirdly once you have agreed on the list then the person with the task is responsible for it. It might mean they do it in a way that is not the way you would have done it. That is ok and if it isn’t ok, talk about it. Don’t get cross, do it yourself anyway and then blame the other person for not doing it.
Finally, review and renegotiate regularly. What is right for one period of your life and work may not be for another. Actually if how something is done is so important to one of you, you need to do it.
If we do all of the above and share the unpaid side of family life fairly, then perhaps our children won’t be the ones sitting on the train talking about what is “women’s work” at home.
Clair Hodgson EMEA Director