Reflections on Criado Perez’s Invisible Women
‘A Woman’s Work Is Never Done!’ So joked the three mechanics who worked across the road from me in St Albans, when they saw me hanging out the washing, admonishing Leo who was watering the patio, thus turning it into a pond; and running inside to prevent something from burning. On top of doing all that, I also forced an encouraging chuckle to the three workers over their joke, so they wouldn’t feel like a spare part.
Three studies of work-related stress, in Sweden, USA and Australia, have found that men flourish in the 41-55 hour a week pattern. Whereas women start to wilt round about the 40-hour mark. Why? ‘Delicately nurtured,’ as Bertie Wooster would say? The weaker sex? Unsuited to the workplace?
Invisible Women (Criado Perez, 2019) points to the missing piece in the jigsaw: the other hours that women tend to be working, unmeasured by these studies, outside the official ‘workplace’. Women are already beyond, often far beyond, the recommended 48-hour week.
Perez notes that when researchers have attempted to measure the world’s hours of unpaid work, they have found that women do 75% of it. In the UK, the Office of National Statistics discovers that men enjoy an average of five hours more leisure time a week than women. That might explain the odd feeling I had when I looked at the Guardian Soulmates website and found a whole lot of people (men), who defined themselves in terms of box sets and all-day bike rides. When would I ever have the time to do the sort of stuff I could write in an ‘about me’ section?
Soulmate found, when single men and women start to cohabit, the woman adds to her hours of housework while men’s goes down, regardless of who is employed in the couple. The Australian study quoted earlier found that single men and women, without dependents, were equally capable of doing a 48-hour week of paid labour. It was the ‘encumbered’ women who struggled.
When I started totting up my hours, after reading all these stats from Perez, I found that I was spending six hours a day on weekdays, mothering. Then I asked myself, was that really work? After all, driving Leo to school, we listen to CDs. Well, I argued back, lorry drivers listen to the radio and they’re still paid. Then again, is it really work when it can be interrupted? Loading the washing machine with muddy football kits is interrupted by Leo asking me to watch his latest ‘cool move’, modeled on the Avengers – ‘No, that wasn’t it! I’ll start again, mum.’ But lots of people say they get interrupted when they work in an office. Does that mean it isn’t work? Sometimes Leo is pretty self-sufficient, but there’s still a background of vigilance: stopping the muddy boots at the door to prevent more work later, making sure he takes screen breaks, checking he isn’t trying to climb out of the bedroom window tied to an elastic band. Security guards, night watchmen, marshals also get paid to be available in case.
Sometimes, on rare days of harmony, it feels like I’m not doing the work, the work is doing itself and I’m stepping back to let a nutritious ecosystem operate. Earlier today Leo was bringing himself up, practising how to be a good host and empathic friend to the child of my mate who has had to go into hospital. The two fetched themselves snacks, played with lego, negotiated….
On the other hand, don’t managers get paid? – and more highly than the workers they are organising, as the managers’ work is particularly valued.
More challenging than all of those doubts is this: I love Leo, and chose to reproduce, so how can I then downgrade the whole thing by calling it a job? Yet can’t we love our jobs and our colleagues? Can’t we choose and believe in our jobs?
And does love require this ragbag of dull and wearing activities? The essentials of being a parent, fulfilling that role that no one else can fulfil, do not require any of the above list. Women have been conned into thinking that being a good mum involves a host of activities which could be farmed out or left out without any detriment to the child or the relationship. In fact all relationships would probably improve if women had more leisure.
Setting aside the problem of this so-called ‘women’s work’ – mainly housework and caring work – not being paid, nor carrying with it work-free holidays or days off to be ill, setting aside the financial aspect just for now: it still seems really important on health grounds to count the hours and make sure that no-one in our midst goes over the healthy limit of labour per week.
That could mean cutting down on paid work, it could mean cohabitees or co-parents taking on more paid work or housework to help the balance, it could mean paying for more domestic help. One Domino’s Pizza meal for a family would buy several hours of cleaning. Yet hiring a cleaner is painted as a rich person’s luxury while take-aways are normal. Or it could mean that some of the stuff just has to not get done. Homes and children need to be dirtier, meals simpler; children more self-sufficient.
Husbanding the hours also requires some clarity on what counts as work: stuff done for other people? Stuff that is not intrinsically enjoyable? Stuff without which life could not go on? Stuff that is goal-orientated? For now I am putting hobbies (Do I have any?) self care (but not grooming to please others), entertainment and absolutely mutual enjoyment into the non-work category, as well as sleep, and eating, when not required to monitor table manners or rise from the table to fetch glasses of milk; oh, and staring into space – the bliss! It’s tricky to know what counts as leisure, especially as we may pretend to ourselves and certainly to others that we are having fun, laughing as I did in the first paragraph at unoriginal put-downs masquerading as jokes. And that blurs the lines between work and leisure.
It’s 5pm on a Saturday. I have been on the job since 7am. That’s already a ten-hour shift. Now, for an hour, I am practising a pure leisure activity – writing for pleasure. No goals, no remuneration, no survival or caring involved.
Leo is asking me to play football, which I will not enjoy. It will be only for him. I already feel guilty that I am not already doing it.
It’s a challenge to insist on leisure, a challenge sometimes even to think what one would do in that leisure. Too much of it kills you. But so does too little. Heart disease, lung disease and depression are just three of the spectres that lurk for all those who over work. Other more invisible sacrifices made by invisible women are selfhood, soulfulness, identity, voice….
I go to my goalkeeping. Some people get paid to do it.
Feedback so far…..
As the text says, it matters who makes the definitions. If X thinks socks don’t need ironing but Y thinks they do, there’s an issue even before it’s decided who does the ironing. Ditto the acceptable frequency of cleaning, the quality of cooking. It’s not just an M/F thing of course – conflicting priorities and tolerances happen between any co-habiters. A lesbian comedy duo I’ve seen on TV a few times make chore-delegation a theme – difference become polarised until one is the slut and the other has OCD.
I think your male audience would have been gob-smacked watching you as goalie.
You have found some interesting facts and statistics for your article, which you have applied to the work women usually do. I understand the feelings expressed, but although I have never blogged, could it be more conversational and lighter even in tone, while making your valid observations? I think you could cut quite a bit, still leaving the ‘meat’ of your argument. (I think I would have simply raised my middle finger to the workmen.)
A stimulating and interesting piece. In the UK women statistically live 4 years longer than men. I wondered if there would be any change in terms of statistical longevity if the number of ‘unpaid hours’ worked were magically equalised? Would women statistically live longer? Would men have even shorter lives? Would this be acceptable in terms of fairness? Quality versus quantity? Divided by fairness! It’s a complicated subject.
Brilliant, both the writing and sticking to the subject (see previous stories) it is so true and clear. There are some 9-5 wage-earning jobs, however, that are more like 24-7 in their heads, and therefore not properly “helping around the house”. Being a single parent and wage-earning doesn’t help, either.
Interesting, but an analysis that has been pondered over for many years. Is it trite and a massive generalisation to say that men and women have different, complementary skills and that women tend to be more nurturing and willing to spend time and effort in doing the ‘pointless’, unpaid tasks of child-rearing and housework ?