Why it’s time to come clean about who does the dishes

Forty years of feminism and still women do the majority of the housework

I read Sally Howard’s Home Stretch in March 2020 during Lockdown One, and ever since I have been stealing Sally’s line about how women will never be able to smash the glass ceiling when they can’t get off the sticky floor.  The book’s premise is that as long as women take on a disproportionate amount of the domestic work, they will never to able to rise in the workplace.

Whilst Covid may be opening up more flexible working patterns which could benefit women in the long term, in the short/medium term it really does feel like we’re going backwards, with women taking on the brunt of the domestic work, childcare and home schooling, leaving them little physical and mental time for themselves and putting huge pressure on their own work, education and well-being.  

This makes Sally’s book even more of an essential read than it was a year ago!  It is a well-researched, informative, thought-provoking read and full of eye-opening statistics.  The book is backed up by an international survey, from which qualitative comments are excerpted throughout.

Sally writes frankly, accessibly and with humour about the development of feminism and the attendant difficulties of the Double Day or Second Shift, where working mums still pick up the domestic slack in a way that doesn’t seem to happen to working dads.

Despite the advances made towards equality, in most households across the world the vast majority of housework is done by women. Even in homes where both partners work full-time, women put in more hours towards domestic chores. And once children come along, the disparity of effort made between the sexes gets worse, with many women effectively putting in a double shift.

Then there is also the mental and emotional work which is truly hidden and underappreciated – knowing what needs doing and when; remembering birthdays (and buying and writing the cards and wrapping the gifts); deciding what to cook; knowing what’s in the fridge and larder; what time is child pick-up; etc. – the list goes on and on.

Although shocking, the physical and mental load undertaken by women didn’t really surprise me as we’re all still working hard to shake off the gender roles that we’ve been brainwashed by since childhood.

What shocked me most, however, was Sally insight that by outsourcing household work (especially a cleaner), we are reinforcing the gender roles.  Most cleaners are women – and often low paid!

My career spanned the 1980s – 2010s when I was also raising a family, and I firmly believe I could never have done it without my amazing support system of a cleaner, a nanny, grandmothers, and female friends who helped me out.  I’m now really concerned for my feminist conscience!  Sally notes, incredibly, “there are more live-in domestic workers in London today than there were in the 1890s.”

Turning to how we might “reboot the stalled domestic revolution”, Sally argues “many of the great successes of feminism have come in moments when boots were on the ground”. For example, the legendary 1975 women’s general strike in Iceland, in which 90 percent of adult women left their jobs and families to march in the streets, led to equal gender pay rights being enshrined in Icelandic law a year later.

Maybe Covid is our chance to reboot.

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