Victoria's blog: The invisible woman
My mother-in-law was a stay at home mum for much of my husband’s childhood – a fact that we tried to explain to our six year old over the summer. He listened to our explanation, frowned as he thought about it and then looked at us incredulously as he said, ‘Wait. She was nanny to her own children?’
I have thought about this at lot since the summer. I was initially horrified that my son’s childhood has been so dominated by being looked after by a nanny (a much beloved nanny) that he equates the work involved in looking after him with paid employment, rather than with the loving efforts of his parents.
But then the feminist in me reasserted herself. Women around the world continue to carry the load of unpaid labour – whether its cooking, childcare, housework, farming or caring for elderly relatives. This work goes unrewarded in monetary terms and in economic terms is ‘invisible’. Efforts to quantify the amount of unpaid work undertaken by women are recent and largely reliant upon surveys – but the divide globally is clear. The New York Times reported in 2020 that India has the largest gap between unpaid labour done by women as opposed to men while Sweden, Denmark and Norway (countries with the most comprehensive welfare programmes) are closest to gender parity. And there is no doubt that the pandemic has made the gender divide worse; both men and women have taken on additional unpaid labour during the pandemic, but women have taken on more.
My experience is the product of the very privileged life I lead – the labour of childcare is ‘visible’ to my son because I could afford to pay a nanny to look after him. I could afford to pay a nanny so I was free to do work that I love (I would never have chosen a career in childcare) and for which I am paid.
But I had the realisation recently that there is also ‘office housework’. A new ‘Women in the Workplace’ report by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company shows that women invest more time than men in helping employees navigate work-life challenges, managing workloads, providing emotional support and championing diversity, equality and inclusion (and ethnic minority and LGBQT+ women invest the most time) – work which is critical but which largely goes unrewarded in monetary terms. I read this report in a state of total exhaustion following a long week of fee-earning work combined with a challenging week with my children and some of the associates at my firm who I mentor. To say that the report resonated with me would be an understatement.
I have realised more and more that the glass ceiling often exists these days, not because of gender but because of the unpaid labour that people do on top of their day job. I have spent the 7 years since I became pregnant with my son so exhausted from endlessly juggling and carrying the mental load of the family, that I have hardly considered career advancement. Now that my children are getting a bit older, I am looking up from my exhausted stupor and realising that in some respects, I have been left behind.
This is a big problem with no easy solutions. But as a start, perhaps we could all be a bit more aware of the people in our lives who are the ‘volunteers’ and do a bit more volunteering ourselves. And perhaps employers could consider rewarding the time that people spend on looking after employees and championing causes with more than a pat on the back.
Victoria is a solicitor at a City firm and her husband is a solicitor in-house. When he grows up her 5 year old son wants to spend ‘all day working on his computer like mummy’ and her 2 year old daughter wants to be a ‘police’ so that she can have a whistle.