Women Scientists and Housework

As part of my research on gender, I often find myself reading pieces like this one, and the Academe article it cites, on the impact of housework on women scientists’ careers. Admittedly, the articles I read aren’t always quite so relevant to my life! But they’re often eye-opening, and this one was no exception.

The thrust of the piece is that women scientists do a lot more housework than their spouses and their male peers, and this is a Bad Idea. Not only is it unjust, it’s also an incredible waste of time for highly trained individuals. I’ve invested a whole lot of time and money in my career; my training is in doing research and designing games, not in cleaning the kitchen. This isn’t to say that cleaning the kitchen is somehow not worthwhile – and I hate a dirty kitchen as much as anyone! But it’s basic economics that I should spend my time doing the things that I can do better than anyone else, not on tasks that someone else can do as well as (or better than!) I can.

I really liked Lorraine Tracey’s take on cumulative disadvantage, too:

Ms. Tracey, who is also a postdoctoral research associate at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, said additional personal responsibilities could add up over time for younger female scientists.

“If you have five hours a week less than your male counterparts available for your research over the five- to 10-year period of your graduate and postdoctoral training, this certainly adds up to a significant amount of time that I imagine could impact your competitiveness in the marketplace,” she said.

To me, this ties to work showing it takes time to become an expert – about ten thousand hours, according to most estimates. Five hours a week you’re spending doing the laundry or cooking? That’s just over 250 hours a year, more than 2% of the total time investment required. Unless you’re more talented than everyone around you, you’re either going to fall behind your colleagues or you’ll have to find five hours per week somewhere else.

So why can’t women just find that time elsewhere? Sadly, it’s not so easy. People need leisure! But leisure, for people who are passionate about their work, isn’t always purely fun. When I look at my own life, I spend a vast amount of my “free” time doing things that are actually related to my professional career. I read, I think, I play and design games, I invent new projects and more! Five hours is a big chunk of that time, and would have a huge impact on the imaginativeness and breath of my work.

After reading this article, I recognize how very lucky I am to have a partner who cooks, does the laundry, and is devastatingly witty and handsome to boot. But I shouldn’t have to feel lucky! As a highly trained professional with something significant to contribute to the world, I already have more demands on my time than I can handle. I just don’t have time for extra hours of housework. Neither do my less lucky peers, but they end up doing the extra work anyways.

I don’t think there’s an easy solution, but all this has reminded me why I’m working to change people’s ideas about gender. This is work that matters.

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