Discover more from Heigh Ho — Work and Working Life
Domestic Work — Unpaid and Unseen
“If you let me stay, I’ll keep house for you. I’ll wash and sew and sweep and cook.” – Snow White
I have only a few more Heigh Ho articles looking at work through the prism of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (catch up with previous installments). To date I’ve left unexamined the working life of the main character, Snow White.
Speaking of unexamined, let’s lift the curtain on unpaid domestic labor. Then I’ll explain how Snow White (and a Heigh Ho subscriber) got us here.
Unpaid Work and Women’s Disproportionate Burden
Unpaid domestic labor, also called unpaid work, can be defined as time and energy expended within a household for the benefit of its members — activities like caretaking, cooking, cleaning, laundry, and shopping.
It also can include care provided outside the home — say, to an aging parent, a sibling in need of support, or an ex.
Globally, women spend on average three times more time on unpaid work, usually in addition to or instead of a regular paying job, compared to men.1
The value of women’s unpaid work is typically swept under the rug in discussions and studies of economics, labor, and wellbeing.
Invisible load, the mental and emotional energy that accompanies unpaid domestic labor, is taken for granted even more than physical chores.
Unpaid domestic labor may be one of the foremost determinants of wellbeing, yet we rarely hear it mentioned. Sometimes, it’s discreetly folded into work-life balance, but only as an aside and rarely recognizing the disproportionate burden it places on women.
Return-to-Office Gender Disparity
Unpaid domestic work may be at play in today’s return-to-office tug-of-war. Writing for Bloomberg News, Michael Sasso reports that the share of men who worked at home on an average day dropped from about 35% in 2021 to 28% in 2022. For women, it fell only slightly, from 41.5% to 41%. Sasso speculates, “One potential explanation for the gender disparity: Women continue to shoulder the burden of housework and childcare…”
Mental Health and Financial Wellbeing
As the business world swoons over mental health apps and services, the probable link between women’s depression and anxiety symptoms and their additional demands outside their job remains largely unaddressed.2
Many working women take matters into their own hands by reducing their hours or leaving their jobs to meet the needs of caregiving. But they pay a price: new models estimate3 that, in the US, mothers sacrifice on average $295,000 over the course of their lifetime as a consequence of unpaid caregiving. (The amount varies depending on earning potential and family size.) Lost wages make up 80% of these losses; lost retirement income makes up most of the remainder.
Invisible Family Load
An under-appreciated element of unpaid work is invisible family load (sometimes called mental load): the mental demands of addressing families’ or households’ needs, goals, activities, responsibilities, and/or wellbeing.
In a new study, Wake Forest University’s Julie Wayne and her team divide4 invisible family load into three categories:
Managerial — planning, organizing, directing, supervising, and delegating.
Cognitive — mental activity requiring attention, remembering, thinking, anticipating, information processing, deciding, and solving problems.
Emotional — worrying about fulfillment of the family’s needs, goals, responsibilities, and/or wellbeing.
Workers and employers alike should heed the words of Wayne and her team:
Not only is invisible family load likely to negatively affect health and well-being, thereby levying undue costs on organizations, but spillover effects suggest that the invisible load from one’s family may negatively affect job attitudes.
Counterintuitively, Wayne’s research suggests that invisible family load may not be all bad. For some people, cognitive and managerial load go hand-in-hand with family satisfaction and good job performance. However…
Emotional load is strongly linked to exhaustion — at work and at home — and to sleep problems, impaired job performance, and lower life satisfaction.
Amanda Shendruk’s and Sarah Todd’s Quartz article, The Economic Case Against Unpaid Domestic Work, includes a tool to compare your level of unpaid work to women and men in various developed countries. The article also explores potential policy solutions, like compensating domestic labor, tax breaks, and better access to social services like childcare.
Unpaid domestic labor, however, isn’t just an economic problem. Our social norms, environment, upbringing, and shared stories perpetuate our domestic behaviors.
Unpaid Work and Snow White
In the opening scene of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, our shero is found scrubbing the palace floors. “Her vain and wicked stepmother the queen,” the prologue explains, “forced her to work as a scullery maid.”
(A scullery maid was the bottom of the domestic labor pecking order. PBS created a job description for its Manor House website.)
When Snow White flees the palace, adorable woodland animals lead her to the seven dwarfs’ remote cottage. It’s vacant when she arrives, and Snow White sets about cleaning up the place. When the dwarfs come home, she strikes a bargain to take refuge in their home, offering in exchange the only form of capital she knows: “If you let me stay, I’ll keep house for you. I’ll wash and sew and sweep and cook.”
The promise of pastry seals the deal: Hearing that Snow White will bake their fave, the dwarfs exclaim, “Gooseberry pie? Hurray! She stays!”
Snow White has escaped from involuntary servitude to voluntary servitude.
“The Unrealistic Option of Whistling While You Work”
Ultimately, she’s tracked down by, carried off by, and married to her beloved prince, who presumably shelters her from having to work another day in her life.
Rescue from hard labor to worklessness is a recurring motif in early Disney films:
“The Disney characterization of work suggests that if individuals persevere in exploitative situations they will eventually be rescued by well-meaning and decent heroes,” writes organizational studies scholar Martyn Griffin.5 “This occurs in no less than 29 of the Disney animations.”
Early Disney animations seem only to offer the ultimately naïve and unrealistic option of whistling while you work as an escape from workplace oppression. — Martyn Griffin
If Snow White does, indeed, assume a life of worklessness, it’s her social class that allows her to do so. More typically, as depicted in Dina Goldstein’s Snowy photo (accompanying this post), a woman’s “worklessness” is a romanticized reframing of unpaid work.
You Should Have Asked
With Snow White as a touchstone, I contemplated endless articles about women and work, focusing on important topics like the gender pay gap; sexual harassment; discrimination; or accommodations for pregnant, nursing, menstruating, or menopausal women.
Nothing fit the bill until my friend and colleague, Nikki Reynolds, a Heigh Ho subscriber, emailed to suggest I write about unpaid domestic labor. She included a link to Emma’s “You Should Have Asked,” a comic — with something of a cult following — that recounts with amusing but cringey realism how invisible family load gets grossly misallocated. [After reading the comic online, find Emma’s book, The Mental Load, in the Heigh Ho bookstore.]
Nikki’s timing was perfect. I’d been studying up on unpaid domestic labor and trying to pinpoint its relationship to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (Dina Goldstein’s Snowy helped. So did Emma’s recommendation in You Should Have Asked: “…Raising our children as far away as possible from stereotypes…”)
Consider this article a preamble. Nikki and I will follow-up soon with a recorded conversation. She brings to the discussion thoughtful, informed, lived experience. Listening to us will feel more like eavesdropping on an engrossing convo between friends, rather than a run-of-the-mill, over-scripted podcast interview.
If you’re not already subscribed to Heigh Ho, subscribe now so you don’t miss our conversation. Or share this article with a friend or colleague whose life is shaped by work — paid and/or unpaid.
New York Times Gift Articles
(no paywall through July 25, 2023, compliments of Heigh Ho)
The ‘Great Resignation’ Is Over. Can Workers’ Power Endure? The furious pace of job-switching in recent years has led to big gains for low-wage workers. But the pendulum could be swinging back toward employers. (July 6, 2023)
Can Supplements Help You Focus? Some manufacturers claim certain formulations can sharpen the mind, but experts say the evidence behind that idea is lacking.
Seedat, S., & Rondon, M. (2021). Women’s wellbeing and the burden of unpaid work. bmj, 374.
Seedat, S., & Rondon, M. ibid.
Johnson, R. W., Smith, K. E., & Butrica, B. (2023). Lifetime Employment-Related Costs to Women of Providing Family Care. Washington DC: Urban Institute Report. Accessed June, 1, 2023.
Wayne, J. H., Mills, M. J., Wang, Y. R., Matthews, R. A., & Whitman, M. V. (2023). Who’s Remembering to Buy the Eggs? The Meaning, Measurement, and Implications of Invisible Family Load. Journal of Business and Psychology, 1-26.
Griffin, M., Learmonth, M., & Piper, N. (2018). Organizational readiness: Culturally mediated learning through Disney animation. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 17(1), 4-23.