A new perk: housework benefits?

Londa Schiebinger has an interesting proposal:

Employers should offer benefits to help pay for someone to do your housework. Less time dusting and ironing means more time devoted to the job you’re actually paid for…In a paper published in the Jan. 19 issue of Academe, Schiebinger and co-author Shannon Gilmartin, a Clayman Institute research consultant, say scientists at 13 leading U.S. research universities spend an average of 19 hours a week doing basic housework like cooking, cleaning and laundry. And women do much more of the work than men, 54 percent to 28 percent…“We argue that work done in the home is very much an academic issue – not peripheral in any way to scientists’ professional lives,” Schiebinger and Gilmartin write in their paper. “Understanding how housework relates to women’s careers is one new piece in the puzzle of how to attract more women to science.”…Creating a benefit to help offset cleaning costs would also help professionalize housework, a job that Schiebinger calls “invisible labor that isn’t counted in the gross domestic product.”
Outsourcing more of that work will create stronger, better paid jobs for professional housecleaners, much in the same way that childcare has been professionalized, she said…While the study is focused on improving the work-life balance of female scientists working at universities, Schiebinger says housework benefits should become a standard perk for men and women in all professions.

(Thanks, Sam!)

27 thoughts on “A new perk: housework benefits?

  1. I always worry about these sorts of solutions. It inevitably means shifting the burden to other women. Despite my own practices (I pay someone to come in and clean every 2nd week), I still find myself thinking that in a just world we’d each clean our own toilets. Is that a crazy thought?

  2. I saw a movie where a guy was talking about how he has someone come in to clean his house every week, but he cleans the toilet himself.

    Seriously, though, this is absurd. Aren’t Americans workaholic enough as it is? Do we really need to get them to devote even more of their time to work? And professors at research universities get paid enough as it is. If they think the stuff they do is so important that their time shouldn’t be wasted on housework, let them get a smaller house or spend less on other stuff they don’t need, and hire housekeepers with that money. There are much worthier places any extra money could go (e.g. more financial aid for poor undergrads).

    I understand that this falls more on women, but that’s an issue about the way housework is handled within the household and is not unique to highly trained occupations.

  3. For an older and more developed theory about professions and paid housework that arose from similar concerns, see:

    Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Home. 1903. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972.

    Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Women and Economics. 1898. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2006.

    No one reads anything of hers but for the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” but her non-fiction work is impressive and was very widely known in her day. Charlene Haddock Seigfried is the most well known of her modern readers; Jane S. Upin also wrote a good paper examining Gilman’s work and comparing it to that of John Dewey.

    Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

    Upin, Jane S. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Insrumentalism Beyond Dewey” Hypatia 8.2 (1993): 38-63.

    My senior thesis was a re-examination of Gilman’s work – I find her to be incredibly relevant and incredibly undervalued as a female and feminist philosopher. A reading of her would add much to any discussion about women in the professions and the ongoing necessity of housework.

  4. My gut feeling about this is that it’s just so incredibly classist, and implicitly racist as well. (In my area, at least, professional housecleaning is a domain of less-educated brown-skinned women; nobody is offering those women subsidies for their housework.)

    Also I think a lot of housework is discretionary… you can spend 19 hours a week on it, or not. You can maintain a white-glove-test standard, or you can relax about it. Maybe I should keep a household housework diary for a few weeks before I say that; maybe 19 hours/week is not as extreme as it sounds).

    For me the analogy with childcare subsidies doesn’t hold up, because childcare is not discretionary in the way that housework is. During the hours that parents (mothers) are giving their paid work their full/best attention, someone else has to be attending to the children. Kids can’t be ignored or put off ’til a more convenient time. Also, well-supervised, healthy and educated kids offer short- and long-term benefits to the whole society; childcare’s worth an institutional investment. I don’t think any of that’s true of dishes or laundry.

  5. Little grr…I am trying really hard to NOT sound like a troll, because wealthier women should not be treated like slaves either. I’ll side with Anon#2 and Readerly in comment#4 though.

    Had there been more or better supports in place for students like me last year, I wouldn’t be in the situation I’m in now. I don’t believe it was the intention of Dr. Schiebinger and the authors of the study to shortchange my demographic, but that’s usually how these funding shifts get interpreted. Group x wants more so the surplus has to come out of the budget for poor people. Then they justify it by calling poor people lazy and use the new plan to rope-a-dope poor people into having to work ANOTHER job to feed their families while they’re in school.

    Maybe I’ll start a business selling courses designed to teach wealthy women how to get their self absorbed husbands off their *sses and sharing the housework.

  6. Xena, I agree with you re inequitable distribution of resources. This comes under the heading of To Those That Have, More Will Be Given.

    I see why they frame it rhetorically in terms of “women and husbands” but that analysis leaves out husband-less households… All women are not wives. All mothers are not wives. Not all partnered women have husbands. Etc.

  7. I’ve not yet read the full article, but I’m dubious about the ‘professionalization’ of childcare. In the UK, at least, much professional childcare is done by young, poorly paid women – which feeds into the concerns mentioned above.

  8. Yes, Readerly. Maybe the rhetoric in the article was just designed to appeal to some “majority view”(?). It’s been my experience with households run by same-sex couples that “domestic tyranny” is a non-issue for them. They approach household chores in the same manner that people approach other types of personal hygiene. If it’s dirty, it gets washed, no thought, discussion or argument required. GLBT people tend to view other types of tyranny as far more pressing and worthy of discussion than dirty dishes, right?

    The last sentence in my comment #5 was intentionally flip. I guess I’m still pretty bitter about the way the province of Ontario dealt with my own housework “issues”. Their idea of “helping” was to pay a child protection worker to come in and point to everything in my house that wasn’t hospital-clean while she spewed Bruno Bettelheim’s speculations at me, sent me for urinalysis testing and literacy screening, and asked if I had any marriage prospects. THE GALL! I mean, if you’re going to heist my home, send me Colin&Justin, already!

    I thought it was kinda funny to put the proverbial shoe on the other foot, and picture myself in some rich woman’s home with my little clipboard, getting paid to stand around calling her husband “unfit”. Maybe in Adam Sandler’s version of Little Nicky hell…

  9. Here in Turkey it is a class thing: poorer women clean the houses of rich people. Expats pay a little better, but it’s still dirt cheap. And these women then go home to clean for their husbands, and travel at the weekend to keep house for their sons or their fathers. After our second child my husband and I decided we could do with some help, and now we don’t lift a finger to clean our house and all our clothes are ironed! But we’re underpaying someone to do our dirty work… I agree with anonymous that most people, not just americans work too much anyway. So why not let people work shorter hours so they have time to do their housework? Employers could demand evidence that men are doing their share (I quite fancy a webcam spying on a man in a pinny cleaning the kitchen floor).

  10. If they want the women to work more, pay them more. For example, if you make 50K$/year working 40 hours/week (round numbers, figures are meaningless). Then the employer can pay the employee an extra 1250$/year for every extra hour of work per week they want. It may be a little more complex if you factor in taxes (if you get bumped up a bracket you could actually net less pay), but the idea remains the same.

    This way employees can decide how they wish to spend the extra money.

  11. mmm…

    difference is our similarity. people aren’t treated equally because they are unequal; not everyone can do the same work. as long as those doing the housework are treated with respect, paid a living wage + tipped well, i have no problem with this plan.

  12. I’m a bit puzzled by the idea that there will be positive benefits for the house cleaners. All sorts of businesses now hire firms of office cleaners, and I doubt they’re flourishing, though they often have more regular job benefits than the causal house cleaner.

  13. Actually, one might think of hotel room-cleaners in San Francisco, many of whom apparently get less than 30K a year, bad benefits, continual exploitations, and so on.

  14. If we’re so willing to pay other people to care for our children and clean our houses, why don’t we just pay housewives/stay-at-home mothers for the work they’re already doing, if that’s something they want to do? Or is it only legitimate work if it’s not your own kids or house? I’ve always found that an odd concept. It just starts off a big chain of people caring for other people’s kids while they go off to earn money and most people in that chain aren’t able to afford help with the housework so will be doing it all – paid job, parenting *and* housework.

    Perhaps remunerating people who want to stay at home for a period of time and are contributing a valuable service (i.e. running a household and/or caring for children/elderly so someone else they live with — be that a partner, spouse, friend, sibling, etc.. — can dedicate more time to their paying job) would be a possibility? That, in combination with longer, better-paid and legally mandated maternity/parental leave, more flexible work conditions and part-time job opportunities that would allow more people to remain in or move into well-paid work that fits in with their caring and domestic responsibilities would give them more real choices instead of Do Everything Yourself or Outsource It All.

  15. Has anyone else ever read Nickled and Dimed? Barbara Ehrenreich’s account of working for a maid service, I think should at least give us good reason to pause when thinking about this sort of thing.

  16. xena, you can but i don’t have one answer. i’ve held many jobs and i have several at the moment. and i don’t come from money either…

    i’m a video artist. i freelance. i consult. i work with museums. i’m training to be a psychoanalyst. and i put myself through my first 7+ years of school thanks to scholarships + financial aid + lots low paying utterly lovely jobs.

    now, xena, i’d like to know why it matters…?

  17. Reel aesthete, I took a look at your blog, and noticed that you’ve posted your opinion on this particular issue there as well. My first knee jerk response was to blast you for it. But your opinions are usually stated politely, so I thought I’d return the courtesy and just ask you why.

    How did you reach the conclusion that pay gaps exist because people are not equal? Don’t spend much time talking to Dr. Kumar the taxi driver, or Dr. Svetlana the hotel maid, or Siobhan the traumatized Catholic school dropout who ran away from that UK war zone and got stuck serving your fish for the last 8 years or so?

  18. xena, I don’t want to gang up against you, but something is going wrong here, and I get the uncomfortable sense you are looking for opportunities to find fault. What I read on RA was roughly equivalent to “people have different talents but they should all get at least a living wage.”

    If you feel you can’t continue in a constructive fashion about the topic of this post, why not just drop it and concentrate on the others. You know we value creating an atmosphere where people do not feel unnecessarily attacked.

  19. JJ, I was just about to tell RA that I’m glad I didn’t start blasting. I was only trying to clarify, ask, as I said. The placement of conjunctive clauses in the sentence before “as long as those who…are treated with respect” just threw me on the meaning for a minute.

    I think most of you have seen me in attack mode. If you feel like I’m attacking you, RA, I’ll shut up now. Have I done that?

  20. thanks, jj.

    xena, you did single me out (i didn’t notice anyone else being asked what they did life-wise to justify their views…). but it’s fine, i suppose.

  21. JJ, I will leave specific individuals and their views out of this comment, because most of the responses to the post so far have been from countries other than the US. They’re just stating their opinions and have nothing to gain by doing so.

    But yes, I find a great deal of fault with the suggestion that wealthy women should get subsidized house keepers when thousands of American children are dying every year because their healthcare system is atrocious. What’s more, proposals like this have more impact on Canadians than Americans realize. With no odd religious cults to cater to, no history of slavery, fewer homophobes and a different attitude toward “family values” the Canadian right is always looking for new ways to convert liberal voters to conservatives.

    This is exactly the kind of proposal that our conservative politicians are constantly trying to pawn off on the Canadian public–usually at the expense of single mothers and immigrant women. I’ll just have to hope conservative mouthpieces like Ann Coulter don’t start pitching the idea. “Put them back to work” is not a slogan I want to hear again, thank you.

  22. Hi, all…Xena’s sister here. Not Gabrielle, ha ha…

    I think you all are making mountains out of molehills. Perhaps the real underlying proposal is

    People who clean houses for a living deserve more money.

    NOT upper-class women deserve more money to pay into subverting the working classes. Right outcome, wrong direction.

    Try convincing the right-wing budget-makers of that, however. They’re interested in saving a buck, first, always at the expense of social programs that make us better citizens. And the last thing they’re going to fund is something as frivolous (in their eyes) as “women’s” work like cleaning houses.

    And yes, we should all clean up after ourselves. If you’re going to put money into anything, fix up the American health care system first. Then child care, literacy, environmental protection, adequate housing…Yeah, I can think of lots of things I’d rather see funded.

    Given that it’s something no one will realistically do, don’t you think all this kafuffle and argument is a waste of time?

    Go clean your toilets.

  23. Oh, by the way, I do volunteer work as a grant writer for charities, so I’ve done a lot of research into what gets funded… And something that someone else will pay for (or do for free) is never a priority.

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