That all said, as a woman in science, it is sometimes disheartening to almost never hear an article suggest that a woman in science discuss household duties with her partner and split them evenly. The author of your article makes the statement that women bear the burden of household labor, but until scientists begin to tell other scientists that this isn’t right, women are going to continue to leave academic science for fear of not being able to “balance” work and family.
You can be right and be practical at the same time. These need not be mutually exclusive. I also think that you need not choose between achieving tenure and advocating for social justice. And, until you stop choosing, the pipeline is going to continue to leak like a sieve.
–Isis the Scientist, “A Response on Men, Women, Housework, and Science”
I feel compelled to add, as I have written in many blog-post comments over the last few days, that I deeply respect the value and autonomy of individual relationships — and this, too, is an important part of this calculation. Asking a woman to do more because she is a woman is never fair. But personal relationships are not appropriate places for philosophers or career advisers to lurk. It’s up to each couple — not me, not feminist critics, not tradition — to negotiate housekeeping, childcare, or other domestic responsibilities, and the other aspects of personal relationships. The goal is for those choices to be freely made and not coerced. So men, and women: It’s up to you and your partner to set the terms, but please make sure those decisions are made as freely as can be achieved.
–Jim Austin, “A Special Message for Men: Do Your Share”
While a robust internet discussion about careers and home-life and gendered division of labor has been going on, I have been sitting on the sidelines. (And baking cupcakes and making other necessary preparations for the joint birthday party we hosted for the Free-Ride offspring this past weekend. Plus wondering if this is the year that the social judgment will be spoken aloud, whether by someone outside the family or by one of the sprogs: “How is it that you can make them share a party like that rather than giving each of them a distinct birthday party close to their actual month and day of birth?” How indeed.)
It’s not that I don’t know something about trying to combine a career with family and obligations outside that career (although balance is not the right word to describe that kind of task). But it is hard to speak of these experiences without someone feeling as if my “is” is intended to have the force of an “ought”.
And that jump is pretty hard not to make, given that one thing that girls and women in American society are socialized to do pretty darn reliably is to judge other girls and women (and, of course, to judge themselves as girls or women). Is there a downside to a particular option? We will find it, even if it is just hypothetical. (And laboring under the burden of hypothetical downsides can be its very own downside.) We can speak about what works for us individually, but do so with the awareness that it might stop working, at which point we have to figure out some other option.
Against the backdrop of historical inequalities and gender roles that are so culturally pervasive that local counter-programming by egalitarian parents can only accomplish so much, the options that are widely embraced are imperfect, and some of the other options one might pursue are likely to be viewed as bizarre. Thus, necessarily, whatever autonomy we exercise is constrained. There may be a sense in which we are free to work out our own arrangements in our relationships, but it doesn’t mean we can fully escape the push-back.
I am partnered with someone who does much more of the cleaning tasks in our household than I do, and I joke that not doing the cleaning is my way of sticking it to the patriarchy. Maybe my extra tolerance for household entropy compared to that of my better half, an only child, comes from my being one of four children of pack-rat parents, both of whom had jobs outside the home for most of my childhood.
But maybe it just means I’m a slob and an asshole whose mother didn’t raise me right. (Somehow, when my housekeeping skills are under scrutiny, it’s never a question of how my father raised me.)
Those of us with kids (well-known sources of entropy) can try to hound those kids into helping, but then you worry that the hounding is what they will remember of their childhood with you. You can set aside time evenings and weekends to clean (assuming you’re not working on that project that’s due or that stack of papers that need grading), but then you end up without time to spend enjoying each other’s company (or maybe even to get sufficient rest for the next onslaught of job or parenting responsibilities).
“Outsourcing” the reduction of household entropy is an option, but the local housecleaners for hire seem to recreate the gendered division of labor (women clean, men fix) while introducing economic class gradients as well (between the people who can afford to have others clean up their messes and those who have to clean up their own damn messes). Even what you can afford as far as hiring help is susceptible to judgment: Is the price you’re willing to pay enough that you’re not exploiting the person you’re paying? Is the price you’d have to pay so much that it “doesn’t make sense” for you to hold on to your own job with the not-so-great pay instead of quitting it and becoming the full-time housekeeper for your relationship? What is the right balance between your satisfaction and the other things your family might be doing with the money?
My experience paying for skilled and loving childcare while I worked was that philosophers and career advisers do not lurk when it comes to such choices. They butt right in and tell you all the ways you are doing it wrong.
(They will, of course, be competing for your attention with the people lined up to tell you whether your educational choices and/or career trajectory render you a failure and/or peripheral to the group of people who could possibly offer insight or meaningful advice, including on issues like work-life balance.)
Because your personal choices, as a woman trying to build a life out of relationships and careers and other interests and responsibilities, are a matter of public interest. You are fair game for critique. And chances are good that you have been so well trained that you will critique yourself even in the absence of other critics.
I’m not one to throw up my hands and just accept the status quo. Indeed, it’s been suggested at times that I am overly optimistic about the prospects for meaningful change of features of the tribe of science on a faster-than-geological timescale. But changing the balance of power so that partners in relationships can really freely negotiate their own division of household labor (as well as what kinds of household labor they regard as worth doing) is a transformation which will involve many moving parts: expectations in the workplace about what kind of time and energy one must be ready to devote to the job, and what kind of support one must secure at home; the expectations each partner learned in the families that raised them as far as what a home should be like and whose job it is to make it that way; the importance of teamwork and meeting one’s partner halfway (or not) that each partner brings to the relationship; the expectations communicated by extended family, friends, and neighbors and the feedback, whether subtle or blunt, as to whether you are living up to them.
There’s more involved, in most cases, than finding a housecleaner and checking her references. That may address the filth, but it doesn’t fully solve the problem. Indeed, as long as we conceive of work-life balance as more a matter of individual decisions than of problems we share — in relationships and in communities (including professional communities) — it’s a problem I fear we will keep dragging along with us and recreating in each future generation.