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One of the critical issues facing a majority of professional women is work-life "balance" (for a reminder of why the term ‘balance’ is a part of the problem, see my previous blog post on the topic).


Women still bear the brunt of the responsibility for housework and child rearing, despite now representing over half the workforce. The majority of women scientists and technologists are in dual-career couples, and companies are facing significant retention and advancement issues due to work-family conflict. High-tech companies are acutely aware of these challenges, and have responded with innovative practices such as extended options for parental leave, onramping and offramping, career customization, flexibility, and telecommuting options. Some have also established childcare subsidies and onsite childcare programs to help employees meet the demands of work and family. Fortune Magazine’s ‘Best Companies to Work for’ features great examples of the length companies will go to in order to retain talent and mitigate the negative effects of work-life challenges.


What about housework? Housework is seldom, if ever, discussed as a part of organizational interventions that companies and universities can look into to address work-life challenges, since it is usually thought of as part of the "private" sphere of home life. Yet, new research suggests that housework is a critical point of intervention to retain and advance women in science.


The Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University just published research showing that women’s scientists in dual-career academic couples still handle 60% of the laundry, 56% of the cooking, and 46% of the cleaning. Male scientists in dual-career couples, by contrast, handle 29% of the laundry, 41% of the cooking, and 31% of the cleaning. Equality on the home front is still an elusive goal. Both men and women academic scientists work about 60 hours a week –except that on top of those 60 hours of work, women are carrying a disproportionate amount of the housework. A critical finding of authors Londa Shiebinger and Shannon K. Gilmartin is that highly productive women scientists are significantly more likely to outsource housework. Therefore, the authors argue, universities (and companies) who wish to retain and advance women should provide all their employees with housework benefits.


I had the opportunity to sit down with the lead academic on this study: Londa Schiebinger, Director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University and John L. Hinds Professor of History of Science in the History Department at Stanford University.


Caroline Simard (CS): Why did you choose to study the issue of housework in academic couples?


Londa Schiebinger (LS): We collected the data as part of our survey of 30,000 faculty at 13 leading US research universities for our Dual Career Academic Couples study.  Once we finished with that major study in 2008, we turned to our survey items on domestic division of labor—and this issue popped out at us.  The findings are remarkable.


CS: What was the most surprising finding to you?


LS: It is not that despite women’s considerable gains in science in recent decades, female scientists do nearly twice as much housework as their male counterparts. We were surprised to learn that women scientists’ households outsource—or hire others to do their work—twice as much as men scientists’ households.  Successful women clearly have a strategy.  We recommend that employers support a housework benefit for everyone—men, women; partnered, single.


CS: The study focused on highly educated professional women in academia. Can’t they afford to outsource the housework? Why should universities step in? 


LS: Not all scientists, especially junior faculty, can afford housecleaning.  The National Science Foundation and US universities have supported many programs to increase the numbers of women in science and engineering over the past several decades.  Women are sending a clear message, that to be successful, they need support for housework.


CS: How would offering housework benefits to both men and women level the playing field for professional women? 


LS: Many men are single heads of households.  Legally, a benefit must be offered to everyone equally.  Like daycare, housecleaning has been invisible labor carried out by women behind closed doors and often in the wee hours of the morning. This work needs to be lifted out of the private sphere of the family and professionalized. We recommend that institutions provide a package of flexible benefits that employees can customize to support aspects of their private lives in ways that save time and enhance professional productivity. Institutions need to think of housework benefits as part of the structural cost of doing business. With lab costs running into the millions of dollars, supporting the human resource involved—scientists’ ability to be more productive—takes full advantage of investments in space and equipment.


CS: Some say that a recommendation of outsourcing housework to housecleaners that are mostly women stuck in low-end jobs perpetuates gender inequality. What is your view on that as a gender expert?


LS: Our policy recommendation hinges on the principle that outsourced household labor must be professionalized responsibly—with competitive wages and health-care, family-care, and retirement benefits—and that employers must conduct due diligence on the household service providers with whom they contract.  Professionalizing housework will help to create real, properly compensated jobs.  Sweden is a place where such benefits exist.  The Swedish government s currently experimenting with tax relief on domestic services and believes that supporting benefits for housework is a win-win situation:  professionals will be supported while the Swedish economy will benefit by creating new jobs and reducing illegal employment and exploitation in cleaning services.


In order to further this discussion and show just how much of an effect housework benefits can have on the retention and advancement of technical women, the Clayman Institute and the Anita Borg Institute  will be co-sponsoring a summit on this issue on April 7th. We hope to see you there.