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06 August 2006

Comments

Cabell

Yeah, see, the thing about housework is that while women do less of it as they spend more time in the outside labor market, the findings on whether or not their husbands do MORE is mixed--basically, it seems like housework is very much a way in which people "do" femininity (Brines 1994), and in fact some studies have found that women who out-earn their husbands actually do more of it to make up for the gender deviance. It's interesting to note, however, that many childcare and housework professionals (almost all of them female) often construct a narrative of self that emphasizes their own nurturing, feminine qualities against what they perceive as a relatively cold and masculine woman employer. It's not just this woman who perceives that only the woman is hiring someone to do what is supposed to be "her" job; it seems to be a viewpoint shared by many of the people involved. I agree with you that the big problem is how the labor, being undervalued as "women's work" in the first place, gets seriously underpaid. But it's just interesting how it gets constructed by the participants.

Jackie M.

Isn't this also very much a class issue?

I've always felt that the most enduringly radical vision in feminist utopian fiction was the recognition that any meaningful social equality had to start with breaking the gendered expectations of household work.

But when you hire a nanny or a cleaning lady, your household has found a solution which achieves gender equity at the expense of someone else's -- your cleaning lady/nanny can't afford to hire someone to outsource her household labor. So now she's doing all her own work, plus yours. Which is where the liberal guilt comes in, I guess.

Most of the parents I know have gotten around the problem with assistance from their own parents and/or in-laws. In some cases, the grandparents have spent months on the other side of the continent -- or even moved outright -- in order to provide housework/daycare help. But this solution is clearly not available to everybody.

The only way I see around the class disparity is something like the French creche system. Though in a country without universal healthcare, universal chilcare seems far-fetched indeed.

Susan

But when you hire a nanny or a cleaning lady, your household has found a solution which achieves gender equity at the expense of someone else's -- your cleaning lady/nanny can't afford to hire someone to outsource her household labor.

Sure, and this is where things get complicated. Is the difference between a cleaning lady and an accountant just one of relative payscale, or is there something else going on? In both cases, you're paying someone to do work that you -could- do yourself. (I'm not just asking rhetorical questions here--it's an interesting problem.)

I freely admit that my perspective on this is skewed; growing up, I knew a few recent immigrants who cleaned houses or took care of people's kids for a couple of years until they had built up a little financial stability, and a lot of public school teachers who cleaned houses once in a while in order to ease themselves through financial rough spots. I know that this doesn't map to the more commonly cited situation of women who take care of other people's kids at the expense of their own, but I do think it potentially speaks to the problem being in the particular situations and implementations, not in the general principle.

Jackie M.

Is the difference between a cleaning lady and an accountant just one of relative payscale, or is there something else going on? In both cases, you're paying someone to do work that you -could- do yourself. (I'm not just asking rhetorical questions here--it's an interesting problem.)

So what it comes down to is the under-valuing of childcare/household labor in general?

If we decide that the labor of nannies/childcare workers/cleaning help should be valued at and compensated for at accountants' wages -- and I'm not contesting that maybe it is inherently that valuable -- then what does that imply for someone who decides to quit work to act as a stay-at-home parent?

David Moles

Maybe Flanagan could hire someone to write her Atlantic articles while she cleans the house and takes care of her children. It sounds like it wouldn't be beyond the talents of a fairly bright college sophomore with a word processor and copies of her back catalog.

I don't see why, in principle, housecleaners and childcare workers shouldn't be able to make more or less as much as the people who're paying them. Full-time nannies and live-in maids, clearly not, but three or four hours a week of housecleaning, or daycare split several ways with other parents, doesn't seem out of line on the face of it, particularly for a dual-income household.

If we decide that the labor of nannies/childcare workers/cleaning help should be valued at and compensated for at accountants' wages -- then what does that imply for someone who decides to quit work to act as a stay-at-home parent?

Maybe we'd stop treating them as if that implied a 75% drop in social status.

David Moles

(But probably not.)

Jessie

But when you hire a nanny or a cleaning lady, your household has found a solution which achieves gender equity at the expense of someone else's -- your cleaning lady/nanny can't afford to hire someone to outsource her household labor.

I think part of the question is--what problem are we trying to solve here? Are we trying to free women from childcare and housework? Or are we trying to valorize those things in order to value women's work? Or are we trying to address the problems of affordable childcare?

Because I see this thing happening where there's a perceived difference in status in taking care of your own vs. other people's children, and obviously there are a lot of class issues there, but at some level, isn't that just about whether a woman is working at a paid job or being a wife/mother/cook/housekeeper/etc? The class issues are very real, obviously, and they are also feminist issues because women are still more likely to be poor. But it seems to me that the rhetoric just cannot work out whether it thinks women's work is valuable or not. Whether the work itself is valuable, the work of childcare and cleaning and so on, the work as distinguished from just keeping your own household together. The dishes have to be washed, right, but is that a demeaning chore that should be allocated fairly or is it work that can be valued, like accounting?

Jackie M.

Maybe we'd stop treating them as if that implied a 75% drop in social status.

Quite.

But as for paying them adequately/appropriately... how does one say it? Show me the economics! (Or at least, the economics which lead to housewives/household labor being underpaid. Is it all just a question of cultural undervaluing? Or is the cultural undevaluing result from a tendency to value labor according to its pay scale? In which case, what economic pressures are driving down that pay scale? I mean, besides the feedback loop with the cultural issue.)

I think part of the question is -- what problem are we trying to solve here? Are we trying to free women from childcare and housework? Or are we trying to valorize those things in order to value women's work? Or are we trying to address the problems of affordable childcare?

Also, quite.

... or just snark at Flanagan? But we'll do much better if we're not snarking at a moving target. Don't go, Susan! Tell us what to snark at!

David Moles

Show me the economics!

(Wait, should that still be in italics? It was already in italics. I'm confused.)

I'm not saying it's going to happen, I'm just saying that there's no reason in principle that kind of work has to cross a class divide.

Supply, demand. On the one hand, people who can clean houses seem to be in greater supply than accountants. On the other hand, hardly anyone (I suspect) below the $100K/year level even thinks of hiring someone to clean the house, except maybe when you're moving out.

Not sure about nannies, but a quick poke around salary.com finds day care center teachers making about 2/3 as much as junior accountants, and childcare center directors making about twice that. I'd guess some of that has to do with drag from the informal sector of the economy, and from people being a lot less picky about their day care teachers, education and training-wise, than they are about their accountants.

Jessie, good point. I'm not sure what we're talking about either. :) Except that Flanagan is a ditz.

Karen K.

Just to throw a different idea into the mix. One of our friends is a stay at home mom with three young kids. She hires a cleaning service to come and clean house once a week saying that it's good for her sanity. They do their own dishes/clothes laundry, but the cleaners do the floors, bedding, dusting, that sort of thing.

I was also thinking about elder care as being another one of those things that has a lot of guilt associated with it. My parents and aunts felt rather bad about hiring someone to stay with my grandmother during the day, but they had lives of their own and she had money to pay for the help.

Benjamin Rosenbaum

I agree with your post, Susan, 100%, nay, 300%, except for one tangential (but endlessly interesting to me) quibble:

one's time allocation is ultimately a zero-sum game

It's so not! Not in my experience. For some people, in the right mood, a stint at the sink washing dishes is *precisely* what is needed to get past where they've gotten stuck writing the next landmark work of modern historical analysis. You know?

Everyone is going to snort at this as an edge case, but I'm dead serious. The great breakthrough in my own household's feminist praxis around housework was when we created a consensus-regulated chore currency. Don't like cleaning the toilet? No problem -- wash the dishes twice. Don't feel like doing any housework this week? Fine -- but you'd better plan some binges later to work through your backlog, which is tracked precisely.

The issue, I think, it's important to recall, is not work -- which is the good work and which is the bad work, which work is demeaning and which uplifting, and what guilt we should suffer at requiring others to do our work. The issue is freedom -- that people be able to choose the work they find, idiosyncratically and in that moment, rewarding. And the feminist issue is to make it real freedom, not just the pseudo-freedom of a lassez-faire market with inherited inequities and irrational behavior patterns enforced by social brutality however subtle.

Jackie wrote:
But when you hire a nanny or a cleaning lady, your household has found a solution which achieves gender equity at the expense of someone else's -- your cleaning lady/nanny can't afford to hire someone to outsource her household labor. So now she's doing all her own work, plus yours. Which is where the liberal guilt comes in, I guess.

(Which reminds me of Sunday in the Park with George:
"Mothers may snap, mothers may whine
Tending to his though is all very fine
It pays for the nurse who is tending to mine
On Sunday...")

There's something to this, but I think it conflates a couple of different issues, perhaps counterproductively. Your household hasn't found a solution at the expense of someone else's gender equity -- the nanny's husband may be taking care of her kids. (Or his kids.) Or the nanny may not have kids yet.

You have found a solution reliant on others' labor. And if you want a high nanny-to-child ratio, then it is, perhaps, a nonscalable solution.

But, first, creating a classless society does not seem to be the *first step* in solving this particular muddle.

And second, even in a utopian classless society, people would allocate resources differentially. Some people would spend their disposable extra income on jet skiing, others on deluxe child care. Plus, kids are different. Some of them will absolutely thrive in day care with a one-teacher-to-thirty-kids ratio. Others are going to need their own adult, and that adult is going to need breaks.

So the gender issue here -- low-status, traditionally unpaid labor being tied to the "performance of femininity" such that women are vulnerable to bad bargains around it -- seems to have a more clear-cut solution than the class issue.

There isn't any contradiction between valorizing women's work, and freeing women from it. Because you don't actually want to free women from women's work. You want to free them from the *obligation* of women's work. You want to invite men to do "women's work" and women to do "men's work". You want to require of people that they do the work required to take responsibility for the lives they want to have -- and you want to let them choose what work.

And one insight of feminism is that cultural programming is one thing that makes that choice unfree, as much as any government regulation or economic pressure.

Writing the next great work of historical analysis is part of life. Singing "The Itsy-Bitsy" spider to enthralled or squirmy kids is part of life. Washing the dishes is part of life. And loafing in front of the TV is part of life. Chosen, these are all goods -- forced upon us, they are all evils. What we want is for everyone to have a chance to honestly choose among these goods, and for there to be equity -- both in the formal money economy, and in the informal economy within a household -- among people with regard to these goods.

I close with the wisdom of Noah's favorite album, which he calls "You Fred and Me":

"Little boys! Little girls!

When you're big husbands and wives

If you want all the days of your lives

to be sunny as summer weather...

Make sure, when there's housework to do

that you do it... together!"

Jessie

Okay, here's what I want to know: how do you track housework precisely? How do you quantify it?

Seriously, though, I like that analysis of freedom vs. coercion. I want to immediately leap upon something you didn't fully work out: "And one insight of feminism is that cultural programming is one thing that makes that choice unfree, as much as any government regulation or economic pressure."

Because I think that's at the back of what people are worried about, when they say that they want to free women from women's work. If you take a pretty average middle-class straight couple and ask them to do the work that they want to do, they will naturally--being who they have already been programmed to be--choose gendered tasks. They will also get external rewards for choosing those tasks and sometimes disapproval for chosing the "wrong" tasks. I have noticed that sometimes, to create the partnership that feels good, I sometimes have to take the chore that's less comfortable and less natural just to break out of my own cultural programming. That's weird, you know?

This is really different from the guilt that I think Flanagan is trying to promote, but I have a sneaky suspicion that a lot of the time, women decide to hire a cleaner or a nanny so they and their husbands don't have to spend so much time overcoming their own cultural programming. (And I wish I had something clever to say here about how to get around that.) I don't want to diss your coercion/freedom framework at all; I just want you to work out how to make it happen. Here, please, for us.

Benjamin Rosenbaum

As you say, Jessie, so it shall be.

We have a list on the refrigerator. Each column of the list captures one item of work, like "fill dishwasher" or "one load of laundry" or "sweep living room floor". Each column is then subdivided into B and E subcolumns. Then some of the cells in the columns are pre-filled to reflect a weighting based on who works out of the house how much at that moment, the principle being that during an hour when you are doing remunerative work for money out of the house, you are "off duty" for housework.

Each column/unit of work is worth the same as each other column, and these equivalencies are negotiated. So filling the dishwasher = wiping all kitchen counters and the dining room table = packing a lunch, etc. There's a nice self correcting dynamic here: since nothing is assigned, if a task is underweighted, it will not get done, and we will have to raise its "fee" in order to get it done. If a task is "overpaid", whoever gets there first will snatch it up, and it will be scarce (and ultimately its "fee" will be lowered). We often make tasks that are easy but onerous (taking out the trash) count the same as tasks that are time-consuming but fun (cooking). In general this will tend towards a superfair solution, where each person is doing less than 50% of the "not-fun work", from their perspective.

(There's also a column for miscellaneous; you have to estimate those things on an ad hoc basis, by analogy to other tasks.)

We also constantly argue about and rejig the weighting ratio, trying to get it to feel fair. Currently I'm working a thirty hour week, Esther is working on average one night a week for 3 or 4 hours, and then there's the difficult to quantify issue of my writing; the current approach is a 1:2 ratio, and allowing me to count an hour of writing (or Esther an hour of preparing for work) as a chore point.

You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. You are honor-bound to write it down (and if you forget, to estimate to the best of your ability).

The list must be counted up frequently, to act as an appropriate "you are behind, get your butt in gear" signal. We were finding that we were slacking on counting up, and then suffering unpleasant shocks ("I'm HOW MANY behind??"). Solution? We made counting up the list count a point on the list (no more often than every two days). Now it gets counted up regularly!

If you are substantially behind on the list, you are under a good deal of social pressure to forgo elective fun activities until you are caught up.

Though childcare is indisputably work, we made a judgement call not to include changing diapers, reading stories, etc. as chores. This is clearly a distortion, but a) we were worried about the corruption effect of extrinsic motivation, b) it seems kind of groady to have the ulterior motivation of points on the list for reading your kids Frog and Toad, and c) we tend to fight for who *gets* to spend time with the kids anyway, not who *has* to spend time with them, so it seems self-regulating. (Plus we have another system of charts for that too, but I will spare you... :-> ).

This system works very well for two talky, assertive, fair-minded, highly competitive slobs. Since we've had it refined (about 7 years now) fights about housework have gone from frequent to vanishingly rare. It does require some intial investment, and occasional maintenance/renegotiation, but it's definitely worth it for the sense that this area of life is on a reasonably just footing.

Does Esther still end up doing more housework? I sure hope not. I guess it would take a social scientist with a video camera to find out for sure. Do we end up doing "gendered" tasks? Maybe. Esther does more laundry, pays more bills, cleans the bathroom more; I wipe more counters, cook more, and (here's the one I think is gendered) do more intense, binge-like organizing activities ("cleaned out closet and took stuff to the attic").

More than you wanted to know, I'm sure.... :-)

Benjamin Rosenbaum

Does Esther still end up doing more housework?

I mean, of course, does she end up doing more housework after adjusting for the fact that she's closer to stay-at-home parenting and I'm closer to a full-time job. That we ended up in those roles is indisputably gendered -- for the traditional boring reason that I make more money and she lactates -- but we are also planning to flip those job assignments in the pretty near future.

Jessie

You know, I think the thing that had never occurred to me is to just count how much work each person has done cumulatively, rather than whether a week's worth of work got done (because there is, in my experience, a major gendered split on caring about what got done this week). How clever, and also, duh. Thanks.

I do wish I knew why maintenance chores vs. project chores were so gendered, because that's the split I've seen most often in otherwise egalitarian households. And I can't find any special problem with it, except that the daily tasks are less schedulable. But what on earth makes that women's work? I can make a lot of analogies here (like dads having playtime on the weekend and moms working on homework and dinner and tantrums and night feedings) but I'm still not sure what it means.

Benjamin Rosenbaum

(Obligatory caveat -- any behavioral gender difference between men and women is likely to be a vastly overlapping pair of normal bell curves, which we all perceive in an exaggerated fashion due to a standard human cognitive quirk of exaggerating gender differences, but...)

It makes sense to me. I think men are socialized to feel good about themselves when they accomplish something major -- or at least something noticeable, distinguishable. I know I have the very male thing where I can't leave a task without a victory, or I'll be totally depressed. I discovered this when I tried to figure out why I often leave work late... miss the bus, whatever, but just can't leave. It turns out I'm waiting for a victory. If I can at least get the thing to compile, etc., then I win, and I can go home a hero.

Just restoring things to the state they were before, just keeping order, doesn't scratch that itch; it feels like waiting, like not really accomplishing anything.

I think some women often have the reverse phenomenon; maintaining their world, keeping order, is soothing and satisfying -- going for the big hit, the big win, is intensely unsettling, and even success can be unnerving, because it's a destabilization.

(It occurs to me that this may tie in to the ongoing discussion about gender biases in submissions and
publication...)

(Also, it's really that both men and women have both pulls -- ordering is both pleasurable and boring for both, risk and success are both exciting and scary for both -- and the overlap is greater than the difference, but there's a slightly different weigthing...)

I think women's work has traditionally been -- or been seen as -- ongoing and endless and maintainance-oriented, men's as project-oriented and success-or-failure. Tiptree wrote about this in the Dear Starbear letters published in F&SF this month (which are awesome). No matter how brilliant you are, or how cleverly you do it, you cannot get a child to grow up faster, etc.

(Probably there are class differences too in here, along with gender differences. I'm small-entrepeneurial-Jewish class -- in my family hsitory, we succeed and fail, grandly and iteratively. The blue collar experience is no doubt different.)

Anyway, I don't actually think this is a difference that is necessarily bad in itself, or that feminism needs to wholly eradicate. There's a part that needs to be addressed -- men's *fear* of not having had a triumph lately to justify themselves, women's *fear* of exposing themselves by excelling -- the part that makes us unfree. But the bit where we just *like* doing different things? That can be a diversity which is a source of strength, as long as some system is devised whereby we make sure everyone considers it fair.


Jessie

Yeah, I buy that there's a gendered difference in maintenance v. victory, and whether intrinsic or socialized (or of course both) it's obviously very powerful. But that still makes me ask: why? Who benefits, what hidden costs are there, etc?

Identifying these differences always makes me ask: would a gendered split still be a problem if the two kinds of work were valued equally? In this case, *can* they be valued equally? For instance, women cook dinner at home, and that doesn't get much credit, but famous chefs tend to be men, and that does get credit. So obviously we should be able to place a high value on the work of making dinner. Then we could also look at how the expectation of dinner-making controls the choice of career, etc etc.

But then you have a different kind of labor split, where in many traditional households, women are primary caretakers and men never bond closely with their children, and I would argue that looking at even if women didn't suffer from that division of labor, it would still be a loss for everyone.

I am suspicious of the project/maintenance split, I worry that it's the second kind of labor division, because my sense is that basically the entirety of Western thought privileges projects over maintenance. I think the hero-mentality is damaging, in the same way that "fathers are providers and not caretakers" is damaging, so I don't just mean that women should take that mentality on; but I am wary of that gendered split as long as one side of it still gets all the praise.

I should maybe note that this question gets under my skin because I totally see myself falling into maintenance patterns, even though I also really love the rush of victory, even though I'm often happier working to fixed deadlines with milestones and stuff. It makes me feel all programmed.

Dan Percival

Ben, would you be so kind as to take a picture of the system on your refrigerator? I think I have the basic idea, but for some reason I'm having trouble imagining the physical implementation, which is what counts.

If you're so moved, explanations of exactly *how* the various values get reassessed would be useful, too.

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Susan Marie Groppi

  • Susan Marie Groppi is a historian and an editor, currently living in Berkeley, California.

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