Look harder, it is time to see women’s 'invisible labour' for what it is

Studies show hidden extra responsibilities taken on at work, in the home and when raising children are not decreasing

Studies show that women take on invisible labour and unpaid tasks, domestically and in professional environments. Victor Besa / The National
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The messages around modern womanhood have surely reached peak exhaustion.

Scrolling through social media, the existence of the #momsoftiktok, LinkedIn boss babes, Instagram momfluencers and X Huns throws up more questions than answers.

Are you a tradwife or a wild woman? A crunchy mum or a scrunchy mum? A radical feminist or a liberal? A silky mummy or almond mummy? Maybe you’re a girl boss? And if so, are you a performative girl boss, woke girl boss or Wattpad girl boss?

No matter your hashtag, you’re probably taking on way more than your fair share of the domestic workload if you’re in a relationship.

Working women don’t have an innate wish to organise the office birthday collection any more than homemakers have psychic abilities to know the ketchup is about to run out

This is because there remains in the mystical, mythical “women having it all” Venn diagram of life, a whopping great hole at the intersection of work, marriage and motherhood called “invisible labour”.

The phrase – coined by sociologist Arlene Kaplan Daniels in a 1987 paper – refers to the never-ending, oft-thankless tasks many women take on at some point in their lives and then get stuck with.

Children drop-offs are just a drop in the ocean

These tasks are taken on not because women have an overwhelming desire to arrange play dates, pick up dirty socks, collect the dry cleaning or remember family birthdays.

Nor because mothers have an innate urge to remember that swimming is on Wednesdays weeks one and three and Thursdays weeks two and four of each month.

Working women do not have an unwavering wish to organise the office birthday collection any more than homemakers have psychic abilities inaccessible to men who instinctively know the ketchup is about to run out so it should be added to the shopping list.

They also do not do it because, as men often seem to think, “I thought you enjoyed it.”

No, they take on these additional jobs because of the continuing expectations around “female roles”, which show no signs of abating even in recent studies.

A study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology in May titled: Who’s Remembering to Buy the Eggs? The Meaning, Measurement, and Implications of Invisible Family Load – reached a conclusion many women will recognise.

“Although much is known of the concrete and observable physical tasks associated with household management and child-rearing,” it read, “there is scant understanding of the less visible tasks that are just as critical.”

Speaking to the Harvard Gazette, Eve Rodsky, an author and expert in the gender division of labour, defined invisible labour as “the conception and planning of a task” as opposed to the actual execution of it.

Let us say your child is invited to a birthday party. Your husband drops them off and pats himself on the back for a job well done. He might even be congratulated for “babysitting” because the bar remains that low in many households.

Taking children to a birthday party is the visible part of the task. What remains invisible are all the actions that got the child to the party in the first place.

There is the RSVP to the invitation, choosing the “chicken nuggets or pizza” food option, buying and wrapping the gift, coaxing the child to sit down and write the birthday card, along with many more micro tasks that were in all likelihood carried out by a woman.

These aspects, the conception and planning parts, are what no one sees. Whereas the execution – the dropping off – is the visible part, the pay-off.

Office housework does not reflect on career graphs

Talking about her book Fair Play, which looks at the invisible tasks in a household, Rodsky said she spoke to a couple who both cook dinner.

“But then the woman said that her husband asks [what she'd like him to cook] and she has to choose the recipe, have all the groceries in the refrigerator, and remind him when to start cooking,” she said.

“Essentially, she was still doing all the conception and planning.”

A 2020 study by Oxfam and the Institute for Women's Policy Research found that women in the US spend two hours more each day cleaning, cooking, taking care of children and doing other unpaid work than men.

And it is not just in the home where women take on extra duties. A study by McKinsey & Company and Leanin.org found that women take on additional work “supporting the well-being of their colleagues”.

In the arena of traditional misogyny, any request for help is deemed by many as nagging

“This mission-critical work is in danger of being relegated to ‘office housework’,” co-author Marianne Cooper wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

“Necessary tasks and activities that benefit the company but go unrecognised, are underappreciated, and don’t lead to career advancement.”

For women, the effects of invisible labour can take a heavy toll. Not least in the arena of traditional misogyny whereby any request for help is deemed by many recipients as “nagging”, but also for mental health, burnout, misery and feelings of emptiness, as well as financial ramifications.

In 2024, it is time for such invisible labour to become visible, and the only way to make it so is for women to stop doing it.

The next time a collection needs to be organised at work, don’t offer your services. Let the chaps do it.

Let daddy take responsibility for the next school dress-up day. They are his children too and he's more than capable of reading the school calendar.

It does not make you a bad person. In current climes, it just makes you a man.

Published: March 15, 2024, 6:02 PM
Updated: March 19, 2024, 10:57 PM