A few days ago a good friend and colleague sent our group of female peers a link to a terrific cartoon about gendered labour in the household, and what the anonymous French author, known as Emma, calls “the mental load”.
(The cartoon, I’ve since learned, went viral shortly after it was published in English, so you may already have seen it; if not, click here.)
The piece is feminist but it is not pedantic: it sensibly, carefully, rationally, and fairly discusses the nature of the intellectual labour demanded of women who find themselves in heterosexual relationships that seem, on the surface, quite equitable, but at bottom aren’t.
Emma demonstrates multiple instances in which women in apparently fair-trade partnerships assume the “mental load” of household management, doing a significant amount of bolt-on labour because the roster of chores – from paperwork to baby care to laundry management – belongs to them. As household “project managers”, these women do the management work AND a fair bit of the grunt work; the former, however, is often invisible. Result? Tired, irate female household members, and male household members who don’t understand why they don’t get enough credit for doing their share of household work.
I posted the cartoon on Facebook, and it got a mixed response. Plenty of my friends copped to not having any idea of such problems; certainly it wasn’t in their personal experience. Here, I pointed out, it’s worth remembering we are a pretty lucky lot: we are, most of us, academic feminists for a living. Stands to reason that lots of us have married feminist partners, male and female and non-binary.
But the “nope, not me” response was not the lot of it; several others – and to my surprise, a number of younger others – shared the link in turn and described having these very issues at home. Again, these are smart, educated, feminist women, with partners who share their values.
Which means that, even among the most sensibly feminist among us, we’ve still got a significant gendered-division-of-labour problem. And for many of us, it walks invisible.
Where does this persistent division come from? Emma’s cartoon makes this very nicely clear, especially toward the end (it’s worth reading the whole thing, btw). It’s not about individual men or women, or our desires or our choices, or our individual douchebaggery. It’s about the ways we have internalized, naturalized, and effectively dismissed our own experiences of patriarchal conditioning.
You know: the kind that says that good women get shit done around the house, while good men do exceptional stuff that supports their family’s wellbeing, but that also has the helpful effect of serving them power and status.
I’m going to pause here for a second to remind us all that patriarchy does NOT equal men, and that women are NOT just patriarchy’s victims. Patriarchy is a system of social relations that organizes gendered individuals into groups, places divisive expectations on those groups, and then perpetuates those divisions as somehow natural, as connected to sexual embodiment rather than social nurture.
Patriarchy affects both men and women negatively, as well as sometimes positively. It affects women negatively more often than men, because women are the secondary group in the patriarchal binary. That said, women often make the best patriarchs: the system needs effective, successfully conforming women to keep other women in line.
OK: so now you’re thinking,
Kim! WTF does this have to do with teaching?
You don’t have to look far to discover that women’s uneven workload in the home has knock-on impacts for those who are both partners and/or parents, as well as researchers. Best practices in the recruitment, retention, and promotion of women in the academy now frequently acknowledge how key university-based support for women’s “mental load” is for promoting their academic success. (Though of course, it’s not usually called that, plainly and outright. It’s usually called “childcare support” or “flex time” or similar – something attached to a chore, not an ethos.)
Women who have too much work to do at home – especially in the key years after giving birth to children – simply cannot also give 60+ hours per week to teaching, research, and administration (with an emphasis on research, of course) in an effort to earn promotion, tenure, and then – the kicker – further promotion to full professor. The latter, in particular, is something in which women tend to lag significantly, even as women’s numbers in the graduate student and junior faculty cohort continue to climb.
(Excellent research into the gender imbalance in the senior professoriate and senior administrative ranks, across a range of disciplines, was conducted by an expert panel convened by the Council of Canadian Academies and made public in a report published in 2012. The panel was convened after the initial round of 19 appointments to the prestigious Canada Research Chairs program included, tellingly, not one woman. It’s worth a read; click here. For [slightly] older research, in the American context and published by the National Education Association, click here.)
So: women who do a lot of mental-load work at home don’t get promoted as fast, or at all, at work. They are TOO. BURNED. OUT.
So far so simple to understand.
But: I don’t do a lot of mental-load work at home; I live alone and am my own household boss. Even when I had a partner, we typically lived apart and did our own things. That’s surely part of why I’ve been as professionally successful as I have been: minimal mental load.
Still, Emma’s cartoon resonated with me fiercely. I wanted to know why. So I did some soul-searching.
(Why is this woman smiling? Keep reading to find out.)
The cartoon, as it happens, landed in my inbox while I was away on holiday, trying – and failing – to get away from work. As I reflected on it in that specific context, what surprised me was realizing that I do bear a disproportionate mental load – not at home, but in my academic job.
The perception of men working in the academy remains different from the perception of women working in the academy, even now; men are more or less automatically perceived as “professorial”, while women are associated less directly with the solitary-genius-in-robes model that term has historically implied.
I want to be clear that I’m not saying here that women profs aren’t recognized as profs in their jobs; I’m saying that the term resonates differently when it’s attached to women, as when it’s attached to men.
Let’s call it the Professor Dumbledore vs Headmistress McGonagall effect:
(Albus vs Minerva. “Professor” vs “Headmistress”. Spot the differences.)
Some evidence for this difference in perception comes from growing bodies of research into how women are perceived on course evaluations relative to their male peers (click here for a brief NPR article from 2016 summarizing recent research). Both male and female students tend to attach adjectives like “wise”, “passionate”, and “tough but fair” more often to men than to women. The evidence suggests that male profs don’t need to do anything differently from female profs in order to garner this response; in fact, assessment statistics show that even when women are objectively revealed to be more effective teachers, men often score more highly on that measure on course evaluations.
It’s not just students who feel this way, either. As the Council of Canadian Academies’ report reveals, “socialization, schemas, and stereotypes define social roles and expectations, and contribute to the lack of encouragement for girls to forge non-traditional paths. As a result, female students consistently report lower levels of self-confidence,” especially in the STEM disciplines (xvii). Women who go into research careers are making a mental leap – even today – away from gender convention. That’s a risk, and it requires compensations of all kinds.
Helpfully, however, convention lives in the creases, particularly in the “teaching” and “administration” aspects of the academic job. Teaching is traditionally a “pink collar” or “helping” profession, and it’s where a lot of academic women get stuck, especially when they are not considered, or do not consider themselves, to be “full professor” material. As Mary Ann Mason notes in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Women are most well represented at community colleges (both those with and without academic ranks) and least well represented at doctoral-level institutions. Women make up 50 percent of the faculty at community colleges, 41 percent at baccalaureate and master’s degree colleges, and 33 percent at doctoral-level universities. Most women are not obtaining jobs at the more prestigious and higher-paying research universities where they earned their degrees.
And women are greatly overrepresented below the tenure track in the low-paying, nontenured positions. Women make up 58 percent of instructors and 54 percent of lecturers, and hold 51 percent of unranked positions.
In the lower and middle ranks – where the research reveals many women are trapped – everyone teaches a full course load or more. The labour to teach even reasonably well is onerous, and a lot of it is not in-the-classroom work. It’s “mental load” labour: prep; marking; office hours; fielding emails; holding hands.
What’s more, teaching’s “mental load” for women also means always appearing as caring as humanly possible, in an effort to earn a “caring” student eval score at least as high as the senior male prof down the hall who doesn’t have to do half this kind of mental somersaulting in order to achieve the same results.
I know a heck of a lot of men who are adored, even idolized, by students of all backgrounds and genders. They are perfectly good teachers and decent colleagues, most of the time. But I know few female colleagues – generous to a fault, supportive of each other, damn committed teachers – who make the same kind of “professorial” impact.
By god, though, do the students ever line up at those women’s doors! Why? For global kinds of help and advice, reading of work in progress, career support. In loco parentus stuff. Time-consuming and energy-depleting stuff.
You know: women’s work.
I’ve had three separate cases of sexual assault reported to me in my office hours. I’ve had countless students in tears, usually because of struggles with mental health issues – not because of grades. I used to keep Kleenex on hand just in case.
And then there’s administration – and not the sexy, well-paid kind. Wow, do women ever over-invest in the admin labour our jobs demand! Could it be that we are very used – socialized, we might say – to bearing the administrative burden for others? Of course I’ve got a number of talented male colleagues who do exceptional administrative work, particularly at the “officer” level in my department, for which I’m hugely grateful; still, I can’t help but notice that the VAST majority of non-academic staff in my faculty are women. I’ve also lost track of the number of times I’ve been in an administrative role, where my job was to try to coax male committee members to do the job of committee member… and I ended up doing it myself, because, you know. Easier.
Look, I know, ok? Rampant sexism in the academy is not news, and, thankfully, we’re increasingly aware of it.
But making real change to women’s working conditions in the academy means taking seriously not only how often the conditions of academic labour neglect entirely women’s experiences of the “mental load” at home, but also how often those conditions actually reproduce the domestic conditions of “mental load” and call it academic labour. Not the kind that will get you accolades, prizes, and promotion, mind – not yet, anyway.
On that note, I’m truly proud to report that on 1 July 2017 I was promoted to the rank of Full Professor at Western University, one of Canada’s leading doctoral-research schools. I’m unusual in this promotion: a comparatively young woman (I’m 42) who has achieved a top research rank just 12 years after my first academic appointment.
I did not apply for promotion based on a “second monograph”, the so-called “gold standard” for top-tier success in my field – I don’t have one, and, increasingly, I think I might never write one. Instead, I applied based on my record of collaborative labour: my editing work, which has been substantial and much-lauded, and my teaching work, which shone through in my file thanks to a dozen letters from former students, and a damn fat teaching dossier to boot.
Why am I telling you this? (Also: if I was a guy, would you ask? Just checking.)
I wanted my promotion case to argue that this kind of work – shared, supportive, and student-forward work by a woman – needs to be more than enough for significant promotion at research schools circa 2017, if we are serious about taking action toward gender parity in the academy. I wanted it to set a precedent; I hope it does. I’ll certainly be supporting, wholeheartedly, future women scholars coming up for promotion with similar files. (I’d like to invite anyone reading, who works in my field, to name me on their promotion files as a potential external examiner, btw.)
I know this post has been long – thanks for reading! In my next post I’ll share the anecdote that prompted the reflections above, as well as some ways we – men and women both – might combat the academy’s gendered mental load in our day to day actions this coming year.
Stay cool meanwhile,