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Labor Day – What’s Gender got to do with It?

Labor Day -- our traditional end of vacation season -- got me thinking about getting back to work and what sort of work we're all getting back to.

But first, a quick rant about the gender pay gap before the bigger issue of the gender work gap.
Women were part of the workforce when women’s rights advocates campaigned for “Equal Pay for Equal Work” as early as the 1860’s. Women were in the workforce in 1882, though records indicate it was only men marching that year in the first Labor Day parade. Women were certainly part of the workforce in 1956 when the 3-cent first class commemorative Labor Day stamp was issued, though you might not have guessed it from looking at the stamp.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 made it illegal to pay men and women different wages for doing substantially the same work in the same establishment. In 1979, the first year the gender pay gap was widely publicized, women’s earnings were 62 percent of men’s. Efforts toward equal pay for equal work decreased that gap by an average of half a cent a year over forty years. (Equality in 2060?)

There! Rant over. What I really want to talk about is the gender gap in the work that is done in the home. To see it, begin first with the stereotypical, traditional jobs of mom and dad in the home.




Cleaning house; laundry

Yard work


Wash car; change oil; fill w/ gas

Shopping - food/clothes/gifts

Move heavy things

Child care

Hang pictures


Fix stuff

Scheduling appointments, playdates, babysitters, etc.

Play with kids

Chauffer to kids' events

Enforcer ("When dad gets home...")

Nurse and nurturer (first aid; up at night with sick kids; etc.)

Has the last word

Cheerleader and Counselor

Protector from external dangers (strangers; bullies; catastrophes; etc.)

Protector from hurting themselves (seatbelt monitor; child-proofing; discouraging risk-taking activities)

While all these tasks are important to maintaining a home and family, there are qualitative differences that evidence a gender gap in home “work.”

Mom’s jobs tend to be more time-sensitive, concomitant with the pressure of deadlines. If Dad plans to cut the grass, and it rains that day, it can be put off until another day. Maintaining the car is essential, though like cutting the grass, it can be postponed to another day if he doesn’t feel like doing it, whereas getting kids to school, music lessons, soccer games, and any of the family’s many appointments at the right time can’t be postponed.

Mom’s jobs tend to be both immediate and relentless. Being the primary provider for all the needs of a child requires a stamina that is not recognized if compared to an 8- or 10- or even 12-hour workday that has breaks for lunch and going to the bathroom alone.

There is greater emotional work in the jobs Mom does. While either women or men are capable of nurturing and soothing, even when both parents are in the household, research has shown that women tend to spend more time on tasks like feeding, diapering, and comforting, while men may engage in more interactive play. Other emotional work includes comforting the sick child, consoling the broken heart, supporting the fragile ego; again, all usually Mom’s job.

Mom’s work tends to be invisible. Managing, coordinating, planning, scheduling – all are noticed only when they don’t happen. As with other time-sensitive tasks, there is intrinsic stress in that work. However, it’s difficult to see and appreciate what’s invisible.

Whether intentionally or serendipitously, Dads are doing more that may close the gender gap for labor in the home. Cooking is an example. But there are limitations in that progress. Dad’s cooking is often outside and postponed if bad weather. In the kitchen he may have a special day rather than routine cooking – Dad’s Sunday morning pancakes or Dad’s Tuesday taco night. Even then he probably has not done the shopping, planned the entire menu, set the table.

Of course, many modern dads are quick to point out how much they help in the home. But there is the problem. You help when it is someone else’s job to do. You help when your friend asks you to help him move. You help until the heavy furniture is moved or you’ve run out of beer, or you have something else to do. You help a second time only if you have been thanked and appreciated the first time.

The labor gender gap in the home will not approach equality until there is a true partnership in the relationship. However, partnership is not determined by a 50-50 division of labor. Rather, when both parties see all aspects of maintaining home and family as mutual responsibility, genuinely shared decision-making will determine both equality and partnership.


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