Housework Is an Academic Issue

By Schiebinger, Londa; Gilmartin, Shannon K. | Academe, January/February 2010 | Go to article overview

Housework Is an Academic Issue

Schiebinger, Londa, Gilmartin, Shannon K., Academe

How to keep talented women scientists in the lab, where they belong.

Scientists are likely not to be interested in thinking about housework. Since René Descartes, Western culture has stringently separated matters of mind from body. Housework is, however, related to the life of the mind. Scientists wear clean clothes to the lab (at least from time to time), eat food procured and prepared by someone, and live in reasonably clean houses. This labor used to be done by stay-athome wives. The single-earner wage of the 1950s, for example, covered the cost of unpaid services that wives performed. Now, housework is often done by wives and partners who are also full-time professionals-and the women we discuss in this study are scientists at thirteen of the top research universities in the United States.

Findings from our study, based on data collected in 2006-07, show that despite women's considerable gains in science in recent decades, female scientists do nearly twice as much housework as their male counterparts. Partnered women scientists at places like Stanford University do 54 percent of the cooking, cleaning, and laundry in their households; partnered men scientists do just 28 percent. This translates to more than ten hours a week for women- in addition to the nearly sixty hours a week they are already working as scientists-and to just five hours for men. When the call came from Stockholm early one October morning, Nobel Prize- winner Carol W. Greider was not working in her lab or sleeping. She was doing laundry. She is far from alone. Highly talented women scientists are investing substantial time in housework.

These findings have important policy implications. Over the past three decades, governments, universities, and industries have dedicated often robust resources to efforts to increase the number of women scientists-and yet progress in attracting more women to science has stalled. The 2009 National Academies report Gender Differences at Critical Transitions stresses that research must explore "gender differences in the obligations outside of professional responsibilities" in order to understand women's career choices and outcomes more fully.

In this study, we zero in on the obligation of household labor. We analyze the division of household labor in scientists' homes and their strategies to lighten the household load in order to maintain highly productive careers. We argue that work done in the home is very much an academic issue-not peripheral in any way to scientists' professional lives. Understanding how housework relates to women's careers is one new piece in the puzzle of how to attract more women to science.

Our policy recommendation provides a new solution to one key aspect of balancing life and work. We propose that employers provide benefits to support housework. Many universities already offer retirement, health-care, and child-care supplements; some even support housing and tuition benefits. We recommend that institutions provide a package of flexible benefits that employees can customize to support aspects of their private lives in ways that save time and enhance professional productivity. Institutions need to think of housework benefits as part of the structural cost of doing business. With lab costs running into the millions of dollars, supporting the human resource involved-scientists' ability to be more productive-takes full advantage of investments in space and equipment.

This policy recommendation hinges on the principle that outsourced household labor must be professionalized responsibly- with competitive wages and health-care, family-care, and retirement benefits-and that employers must conduct due diligence on the household service providers with whom they contract. As political scientists John Bowman and Alyson Cole have noted in a recent article in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, "Do Working Mothers Oppress Other Women?" employing others to perform housework is subject to much political, legal, and sociological debate, even in gender-progressive countries like Sweden. …

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