Beki Grinter

Housework is an Academic Issue

In academia, academic management, women on August 13, 2010 at 4:15 pm

I’ve just finished reading an article in Academe Online: Housework is an Academic Issue. I should begin by saying that I find studies of how academics spend their time fascinating. I’ve written about some of the differences between female and male academics in the past. Today, as yesterday, I want to turn my eye towards housework.

Before I turn to the findings of the article I want to say that I had some trouble with the article. First, self-report data for time estimates is problematic. It’s hard for people to know how many hours a week they work on average. Really. There are better methods for assessing this, diaries are a good example. But it’s probably good enough since the numbers are likely to be large enough (we’re not talking an assessment of minutes here, but rather hours). Still you have to be a bit skeptical when you encounter this type of self-report data. Second, I just had some trouble parsing some of their charts and sentences. I was confused for some time in the article whether they were considering academic couples, or people who are dual-income, but where one is outside of academia. That does become clearer later on.

What I expected the article to tell me was that women tend to do more of the housework, even in dual-academic couples (although the article says that these are the most evenly distributed in terms of load households–something that bears out in my own personal experience, thank you K). But what surprised me was how they saw academic housework as an opportunity to legitimize its outsourcing through having University compensation packages be flexible enough to make the payment of third parties possible.

Taking that slowly. One of their chief arguments is that female academic scientists are the University’s most expensive resource (well after male academic scientists who typically get paid more ;-). So, if they have a significant housework load it competes against the time that they could spend engaged in professional activities. This is frequently referred to as time in the lab. So, why not, provide a benefits package that allows people to not just pay for a service to perform housework, but also to allow those benefit packages to be flexible and tailorable by their beneficiary?

ROCK ON! I’m a real asset to Georgia Tech. Not just intellectually, although that too. I’m dirt cheap by comparison with people who have dependents. I have none! Why am I not entitled to financial benefits that matches those with dependents, why can’t I spend it on someone to clean my home?

The authors also argue that this would take steps towards solving another problem, the legitimacy and debate about hiring people to help with the housework. It would elevate the status of the labor, and those who do it, associated with housework. This is a complicated argument, debate has gone on for some time about whether this constitutes a source of continued oppression of women, but for the authors it’s an opportunity to establish a profession of outsourced household labor. And crucially, it also transforms unpaid labor, and therefore easier to under/un account for, into paid labor which easier to track. Just being able to compute what the U.S. spends on housework would be an interesting measure.

There are lots of interesting things in the article and here’s one. Female Assistant Professors outsource the same proportion of housework as male Full Professors. In other words, a junior female faculty member spends more proportionally of her lower salary than a senior male professor. Would moving some resources for housework change how much everybody spent? It might provide salary relief for junior women, just the types of people that Computer Science and other sciences are struggling to recruit and retain. The article ends by discussing how the University and the male professional with stay-at-home-wife have evolved together, and call for the University to now evolve to embrace women’s careers, citing things like stopping the tenure clock as an example of progress in that direction. And the authors conclude with the observation that benefit packages have increasingly moved into the domestic sphere, such as health-care and child-care support. Why stop there since that’s not the full spectrum of domestic activities that could be supported, and housework is a big time consumer that they argue if supported would free women, and men, to go back to the lab (or spend time with their family).

I may or may not disagree with the sentiment about whether housework should be supported as a means to relieve women. But, I do think that if benefits are going to be given for children, dependents, and so forth, I think that those without them should be entitled to equal financial compensation. Why should I get less just because I don’t have children or a dependent?

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