By Jessica Couloute
Illustration by Magdalena Xochitl Burtnik Urueta
Part of illustration: ‘A Woman’s Work Is Never Done’, See Red Women’s Workshop. Reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Text in Russian reads “Down with kitchen slavery! Give us a new way of life!”

Women make invaluable contributions to the workforce. Whether they are in entry-level roles or managerial positions, their presence in the labour force has produced tangible and positive results for communities and organisations worldwide. Over the last century, women have continued to dismantle gender norms in pursuing careers outside the home. Some even have become the “breadwinner” within their household. However, despite trends of the working woman, studies find that working women and mothers are not necessarily leaving the household duties behind. Instead, they are amassing more responsibility.

Women are frequently bombarded with the notion “you can have it all”, namely a career, marriage and kids. Often implying she can, and will be, successful in balancing all of these aspects of her life. The mantra of being able to “do it all” is preached to the point where it has become an expectation. Now we see that women are doing it all, but not necessarily well and, unfortunately, at the expense of their personal well-being.

According to a study conducted by the head of the University of Maryland Time Use Laboratory, Liana C. Sayer and Joanna R. Pepin, a postdoctoral fellow at the Population Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin, U.S., which analysed data from more than 20,000 mothers who responded to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey (ATUS), they found that in heterosexual households, “after working a full day, married mothers who are the sole breadwinner do almost an hour of housework on average compared with about 11 minutes from married fathers who are the sole breadwinner”.

In addition, “even on their days off, breadwinner moms don’t take a break, doing three times as much cooking, cleaning and laundry as breadwinner dads”, illustrating that even though women are taking on roles that are often associated with men, they are still expected to be the main caretakers in their homes as well as meeting the requirements demanded of them in their professional environments. Meeting this expectation is often at the expense of their overall well-being.

When we examine these challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbates these issues. Throughout the health crisis, working women across the globe were negatively impacted in various ways. Many women who were the financial bedrock for their families were laid off or furloughed. Those who were fortunate enough to maintain their jobs and afforded the ability to conduct their work from home had to cope with the convergence of their domestic and professional lives.

Working mothers found themselves in a unique predicament. Suddenly, all family members were home, their children required assistance with virtual schooling, and some were even responsible for caring for sick and elderly household members, ultimately requiring mothers to manage their nine to five and their families simultaneously.

According to the Women at Work Survey, more than half of 3,600 participants expressed feelings of burnout and decreased motivation to perform their jobs. One-third of respondents noted consideration of leaving the workforce altogether to tend to their families. This strain placed on working mothers poses challenges as they continue to straddle personal and professional boundaries, stifling their career growth, especially for those who return to the workforce after a prolonged period of absence.

These adverse effects on working mothers are not solely due to the pandemic – they have just become exposed and more visible. These negative effects are attributed to the lack of flexibility and high demands of the traditional work environments and the lack of policies supporting working mothers. For example, the U.S. is the only industrialised country that does not offer paid maternity leave, compared to the approximately seventeen weeks offered by its international peers.

Due to this lack of support, U.S. mothers return to the workforce much earlier than the rest of the industrialised world. In fact, research reveals that nearly “a quarter of employed U.S. mothers are back at work less than two weeks after giving birth”, and “one-third of U.S. mothers return to work within three months after labor”, and the lack of paternal leave for fathers only adds additional pressure on women.

With most fathers returning to work within about two weeks after their partners give birth, women are left with a majority of the care while still in the midst of critical healing time from labour. Labour and child care is taxing on female bodies and is often hard on their mental health. Researchers from the Economic Journal found that the “lack of recovery time after childbirth can exacerbate the postpartum depression, experienced by about 13 percent of new mothers during the first year after childbirth”, and only worsens when women prematurely return back to work.

Ultimately impacting their ability to function productively in their jobs and with “well-being costs are a burden the overall economy takes on in health care costs, employee turnover, and productivity loss. To promote a healthy economy, it is in the best interest of employers and lawmakers to consider policies—including parental leave—that promote workers’ well-being”, which would holistically improve the environments of organisations, and both the women and men who work for them.

It is also worth examining how society tends to value traditional nine to five work over domestic labour. The work of care taking requires an incredible amount of time, stamina, patience and skill, but, in most cases, the labour is not compensated for. In fact, this type of domestic labour is not considered within GDP.

study by Oxfam estimated that if women were paid minimum wage for commitment to household work, they would have made $10.9 trillion globally. Researchers approximated $1.5 trillion for women in the U.S. alone. The New York Times referred to this study and also compared the distribution of unpaid work across genders. Researchers found the largest disparity between Indian women who spend about six hours a day on household labour while their male peers spent less than a sixth of that time, at 52 minutes; and this massive gap isn’t entirely unnoticed.

According to a BBC report, over the last century, Indian courts have been providing compensation for domestic workers for unpaid labour — but there is one condition. The payment is only distributed in the event of their death. Under a law that regulates road vehicles and establishes penalties for reckless driving, the country’s judges have determined a method in calculating the value of unpaid housework.

If a woman is killed in a road accident, the dependents of her household can receive payment to “compensate” for her absence within the home. In some cases, the above report says, ” the Supreme Court has awarded lump sum amounts, up to 9,000 rupees a month as notional income for a deceased housewife aged between 34-59 years”. This amount is determined by a variety of factors which include, “opportunity cost – of a woman’s decision to work at home, considered minimum wages for skilled and unskilled workers, taken into account educational qualifications of the deceased woman, and adjusted compensations after accounting for age and considering whether she had children or not”.

The court’s implementation of this methodology proves that women’s work in the household is valuable. These insights lead to questions: why is this value only recognised after women are dead?  And why aren’t we paying women for their contributions when they are alive? The researcher behind these findings, Prabha Kotiswaran, who is a professor of law and justice at King’s College London, England, says she is “not arguing only for salaries for housewives, but for a broader wages-for-housework movement” and that there is too much focus “on how unpaid work is an obstacle to paid work”, when policymakers should focus on “how to get more women into paid work”.

Kotiswaran also states that many “think that salaries for housewives is unworkable at best and regressive at worst, but there is a case for a broader political argument about recognition of housework. I do think that women in millions of Indian households, subject to the drudgery of maintaining home, will welcome a proposal for salaries”.

When we consider the time and financial cost of domestic work, and the sacrifices women make to contribute to our workforce and economy, it begins to unmask the substantial weight we place on women to care for and uphold our communities. Collectively, we must ask ourselves how we can support women, housewives and mothers to lighten their load. Whether it be through reexamination of societal expectations, redefining gender roles or redefining work and how we compensate it. It is evident that we are operating in a fashion that is unsustainable. Even as the work goes unrecognised, the results and its value are not invisible, and neither are the women who make it happen.