My vision for equality is a world where there is no such thing as “women’s work”
As a little girl, I remember being struck by a thought: “Life isn’t fair for women.” My life since then has been a personal, professional and academic exploration into this painful statement. Although it might seem obvious to many people why a young girl might feel this way, two specific events shaped my outlook. These stories, along with academic and internship experience, have shaped my vision for equality: a world in which “women’s work” does not exist because all people take on the responsibilities of caregiving and domestic labor.
“Can you sleep on the couch?” my father asked my mom. This question was uttered when I was two weeks old; my father was a light sleeper and told my mother he needed a good night’s rest for his next day at work. The baby (me) was a disturbance to his sleep, therefore my mom would need to sleep somewhere else. The rationale for his request was simple: his job paid the bills and my mother’s job, taking care of me, was not as important. My mom complied because my father was the breadwinner and his job supported us financially. Unfortunately, my mom was made to feel that her role as a caregiver wasn’t significant and because she wasn’t contributing financially, she believed him. Even though I was only a few weeks old and have no memory of this exchange, it is one of the stories that has shaped me the most. My mother’s work, “women’s work”, was arduous and taxing...but it went unappreciated.
In the United States, women--like my mother--do the majority of childcare and housekeeping duties. On average, women with young children spend an hour on child care compared to a man’s twenty-five minutes. The majority of Americans, like my father, actually believe that women should take on a disproportionate share of this responsibility. It’s no wonder my mother was made to feel her opinions or labor did not warrant consideration.
Entering Back Into the Workforce as a Mother
A few years later my parents got divorced and my mom returned to the workforce. My mother is incredibly smart, went to a great college, and had strong job experience before she left the workforce to have children. However, it was difficult for her to get a job after her divorce. She had to start over completely, working a minimum wage job. The problem was that my mom had a ten year gap on her resume, during which time she was caring for her two children. Employers did not see her duties as a mother as relevant and didn’t take into consideration the fact that she had been working full time as a caregiver.
Over the next few years my mom worked her way up the ladder and eventually got a job that she loves. However, a more equitable division of labor would have helped my mom in both her personal and professional life. If public policy offered realistic options such as paid family and medical leave and paid sick leave, workers like my mom would have been better able to balance personal and professional duties. Maybe she would have taken leave instead of quitting her job; maybe she could have transitioned back into work if paid leave was an option; maybe it would have been easier to re-enter the workforce.
Why “Women’s Work” Matters
My mother’s stories show that traditional conceptions of “women’s work” affect women professionally and economically. Women overall are more likely than men to take leave when a child is born or when a long term caregiver is needed for their family. But this time away from work is often seen as a lack of commitment. In short, men are seen as long term investments whereas women workers are viewed as temporary. This perception makes advancements in the workplace more difficult for women.
The notion of “women’s work” also disadvantages women personally. Women have less free time and less social capital when they work a second shift as a caregiver. This additional labor makes it more difficult for women to develop their skills and passions. Women don’t have the ability to get involved in clubs or organizations at the same rate as their male counterparts because of “women’s work”. As a single parent and caregiver my mom worked and cared for me but wasn’t able to live a full and balanced life until I was a teenager.
As I’ve gotten older and thought about one day having children, these stories have always stuck in my mind. I have given myself ultimatums like “you can’t have children with anyone who isn’t willing to split the childcare fifty-fifty” or “you can be with someone who expects you to be a stay-at-home mom”, even “you can’t marry someone and give up your career”. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with being a stay-at-home mom, the issue is the assumption that because I am a woman I need to do all or most of the care work. I saw the negative effects this had on my mother and I know that we were relatively lucky because of the privilege from our socio-economic status and our race. Most workers don’t have access to paid family leave or paid sick leave, which helps workers, specifically women of color and low income women balance work and life. Luckily I’ve learned that there are other healthier and more equitable ways to divide care work. I have educated myself about policies that support women and families, and I have learned to advocate for what I want out of a relationship.
In learning about policies like paid family leave and paid sick leave that help women reach their full potential and make society function better, I was finally able to put into words the things I had seen growing up. Seeing my mother struggle with this balance made me realize there has to be a better way. All workers deserve the resources and ability to access common sense policies that allow them to be both workers and caregivers. We need to end the idea of “women’s work” and instead encourage all workers to share professional and caregiving duties, while offering them helpful policies that fit their lifestyles. All of these experience, from the academic to the personal, have helped me to understand that “women’s work” is not a part of my vision for equality, rather, the work women do should be acknowledged and respected as the work we should all put forth in an equitable society.