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The imbalance of labor at home is destroying the American economy

Women have always done more than their fair share of work at home, and the pandemic has made the problem even worse. Here’s how we can start to fix it before it’s too late.

The imbalance of labor at home is destroying the American economy
[Photo: Prostock-Studio/iStock]
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The balance of unpaid work at home for heterosexual women has never been good. Back in 1965 when time-use surveys first started recording the hours dedicated to childcare and housework, they noted that American women were doing almost all of the unpaid work in the home.

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But even in pre-pandemic America in 2020, things weren’t that great. Before COVID-19 gripped the U.S., women were still performing twice as much unpaid work at home as their male counterparts (four hours per day for women compared to two hours per day for men). The amount of unpaid work women do at home, by the way, doesn’t significantly decrease for those who also work outside the home.

The pandemic has only made things worse. As of September, four times as many women as men had dropped out of the workforce, which is often a result of bearing the brunt of childcare and help with remote learning for school-age kids.

On this week’s episode of Secrets of the Most Productive People, I talked to writer and reporter Gemma Hartley, author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way ForwardShe detailed how deep-seeded and detrimental the problem of unequal work at home is to women’s careers, relationships, and businesses, as well as to the economy.

Hartley explained that emotional labor is so insidious because it’s invisible. Where the imbalance of unpaid labor in the form of childcare and housework may be improving for couples, emotional labor can be just as taxing and go by unnoticed. Emotional labor is all the running mental lists of things that need to be done, all the thought-based tasks and planning that proceed the actual labor. This kind of labor falls disproportionately on women. Emotional labor isn’t confined to life at home; it also takes place at work (think of the “office mom” who is always following up, reminding people about deadlines, and knows all the log-ins).

The toll that emotional labor takes isn’t just personal, it has ripple effects on the economy as a whole as we’ve seen the pandemic drive women out of the workforce. Listen to the episode for more on how the pandemic has worsened the long-festering situation, the structural and personal solutions, and the possible best-case outcomes.

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You can listen and subscribe to Secrets of the Most Productive People on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, RadioPublic, or wherever you get your podcasts.

About the author

Kathleen Davis is Deputy Editor at FastCompany.com. Previously, she has worked as an editor at Entrepreneur.com, WomansDay.com and Popular Photography magazine.

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