Housework Help as a New Benefit

Scholars document the gender gap in cooking, cleaning and laundry among scientists -- and suggest a new employee benefit may be key to the advancement of women.
January 19, 2010

When Carol W. Greider of Johns Hopkins University learned that she won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine, she was doing laundry.

That fact is cited in a new analysis of academic scientists and housework -- being published today by Academe, the magazine of the the American Association of University Professors, and calling for colleges to create an option for faculty members and others to have financial assistance for housework as an employee benefit. The study finds that even among dual career scientist couples, the time gap spent on housework is hindering the advancement of women.

The study found that female scientists with male partners perform 54 percent of their family housework (cooking, cleaning and laundry) in their households, while male scientists with female partners perform 28 percent of their family housework. While there are other tasks on which the male scientists contribute a majority of time (yard, house and car care), those tasks take much less time a week than those that women are more likely to perform. It adds up to a 10-hour drain on the time of female scientists, the study finds.

The study was conducted by Londa Schiebinger, the John L. Hinds Professor of History of Science and director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, and Shannon Gilmartin, a quantitative analyst and the institute. The data come from a large research project at the institute, "Dual Career Academic Couples: What Universities Need to Know." Schiebinger and Gilmartin used data collected for that report from 1,222 tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the natural sciences at leading universities. Those studied were all partnered with someone of the opposite sex. (Data were also collected from same-sex couples, but the totals were too small to draw conclusions on them.)

Among the other findings:

  • Male scientists with stay-at-home partners do the least household work, relying on their female partners to do 76 percent of such work.
  • While very few women in the survey (13) have stay-at-home male partners, they do more housework than their male counterparts.
  • The men and women in the study reported nearly identical hours a week at work -- mean of 56.4 hours for men and 56.3 hours for women.
  • Men and women who employ others to do housework are more productive than those who don't employ others. (Productivity is measured by number of published articles.)

Based on these findings, the authors suggest that colleges recognize that housework is "an academic issue" and revise benefits packages accordingly. They suggest that institutions offer flexible packages of benefits, in which financial assistance for housework would be one possible benefit. They write that some employees might not want the benefit and would prefer, based on their personal or family situations, other benefits. But the option should be included, they write.

"One appealing aspect of this benefit proposal is its inclusivity -- one need not be partnered or have children to gain access," they write.

Schiebinger and Gilmartin acknowledge that, given the economic downturn, this may not be "the right time" to propose a major expansion of benefits. But they say that over the long run, this is an issue that should be addressed.

"Providing benefits to support housework continues dominant social trends of the past 40 years," they write. "U.S. institutions have stepped into the domestic sphere to support aspects of private life, from health-care benefits to child-care supplements. Institutions now need to step in to support housework."

Cathy A. Trower, research director and co-principal Investigator of the Collaborative On Academic Careers in Higher Education, at Harvard University, said she wasn't surprised by the findings on housework. But she said she feared that this may not be the issue that most needs reform.

"I'm all for more benefits for faculty and household help would be great for everyone -- singles and marrieds and men and women. Bravo," she said.

But the larger question is whether such changes would actually help many women (and men). COACHE's surveys of young faculty members have found significant frustrations with work/family balance in higher education, but the surveys have also found many young scholars who don't just want more help, but want different models, with more time for family or non-academic pursuits.

Too much attention to issues like housework may shift attention away from broader reforms, Trower said. She has written about the need for different models for faculty careers -- long-term renewable contracts, tenure expectations that may not require 60 hours a week in the lab and so forth -- as the best way to create more options. Focusing on benefits -- such as how many times you can stop the tenure clock or whether you should be paid for hiring household help -- doesn't address the question of whether the system is one to bolster or needs real reform.

"What I am against is the lack of flexibility and the seeming inability to confront openly the issues at play," she said.


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