There’s No Such Thing as ‘Women’s Work’

“There’s nothing inherently ‘womanly’ about ‘women’s work.’ Work is work, whether it’s done in the office or the home.” 

(Azman Archive via Getty Images)

When it comes to gender equity at home, many households are depressingly unequal. We raise the bar of household equity in three ways:

  1. by making visible, the invisible work of emotional labor.
  2. by anticipating the emotional labor lifecycle.
  3. by embracing the art and practice of radical delegation.

When we commit to these ideals, men will recognize their full potential in the household, and women will realize their full potential in the paid workplace.

Before “neurohacking” became trending, Dr. Regina Lark deciphered how the brain’s “executive functions” impact household management and organization and exposed the related outcome of the unequal distribution of labor at home. She founded A Clear Path in 2008 to provide professional physical, emotional and psychological support to people who wish to clear clutter and chaos from their lives. This award-winning Los Angeles area-based certified professional organizer and accredited senior move manager has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Who What Wear, and A&E’s hit reality series, Hoarders.

In her third book, Emotional Labor: Why a Woman’s Work Is Never Done and What to Do About It, Lark helps women rid their lives of emotional labor by offering concrete ways to identify and mitigate the costs of women’s unseen, unnoticed and unwaged work at home.

Watch her talk on this topic at a TEDx event, or read a transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

(Courtesy of Folsom TEDx)

No Bras Required 

“A man can work from sun-to-sun, but a woman’s work is never done.” This poem 125 years old. And for me, it brings up questions like: What is women’s work? Why the heck is it never done? And who decided that work has a gender?

Say the phrase “men’s work.” Did you think “vacuuming?” But all we have to say is “women’s work”—and BAM! Instant global understanding! 

My client Silvia put it another way. When I asked, “What are you thinking about right now?” She said, “I need to bake cupcakes with my 5-year-old, schedule a play date, pick up my dad’s medication, put ketchup on the grocery list (she keeps forgetting it because she doesn’t use it), take down Christmas, finish a Powerpoint for work, and find time to organize our messy house, which doesn’t bother my husband, so it’s all on me.”

I’ve spoken with many successful professional cisgender women who tell me that they feel like failures at home, unable to fulfill basic duties that should come to them naturally—you know, tackling that long long to-do list we call “women’s work.” 

And what permeates “women’s work” is the mental load of emotional labor. Emotional labor is mostly invisible. It’s the remembering, reminding, planning, noticing, anticipating—all invaluable, right? 

Invaluable—but also invisible.

You may be new at living with someone, or a mid-career woman who has a few years’ experience with kids, extended family, juggling multiple schedules, trying to “do it all.” 

Either way, wherever you are in the process, you may feel overwhelmed by the volume of work in the home. And even more overwhelmed because you are, or just feel like you are, doing it all by yourself.

The pain comes when we find that we can’t do it all perfectly (who can?) or that we just don’t measure up to cultural expectations of what it means to be female.

In this moment, I want you to give yourself permission, and be curious about why the heck you’re doing so much, all the darn time.

Because here’s what I’ve discovered: As there is nothing inherently feminine about a menstrual pad, there’s nothing inherently “womanly” about “woman’s work.” Work is work, whether it’s done in the office or the home. 

I passionately want to end the tendency to call the work of household management “woman’s work.” It’s time to reimagine all of it. 

The mythology is that women are just better at all things in the home, organically, inside their DNA, or because they have a body part that confers such powers on them. I’ll give you that in birthing and nursing a baby, a woman clearly has the edge over a man—but beyond that, the profession of homemaking is all up for grabs.

Sure, there are some men who do this work. But child-free, or a house filled with kids, the work of homemaker tends to be a lifelong endeavor for all women, regardless of most anything else. 

There are two components to household management: the physical work, and the mental load of emotional labor defined here as the invisible, unnoticed, unpaid and unwritten work women do at home and in the paid workforce. It is the thinking about what’s coming up, what needs to happen, how to look into the future to anticipate birthdays, school permissions slips, family meals, holiday dinners, do we have enough toilet paper, how come we don’t have any more ketchup? There’s that damned ketchup again! 

In birthing and nursing a baby, a woman clearly has the edge over a man—but beyond that, the profession of homemaking is all up for grabs.

Granted, all of these little tasks individually are easy to do but as a whole they’re supremely important to the functioning of a well-ordered home and to family happiness.

Emotional labor explains why the work is never done. At home it involves loving, caring actions with invisible mental load dimensions, and zillions of concrete tasks.

Back to my client Silvia. One day she said, “Regina, on the outside, I have a great life, but at the end of every day I feel so bad about myself. I look around at the mess and I just can’t do it all!! My husband and kids make fun of me because I’m such a lousy housekeeper—I can’t keep up with the laundry and can’t figure out why I’m always the one remembering the friggin’ ketchup! 

So I turned to her and said, “Silvia, listen: Just because you have a vagina, doesn’t mean it’s all your job.”

Betty Friedan—the author of the 1964 best selling book, The Feminine Mystique—might have called Silvia’s lament “the problem with no name.”  But after listening to Silvia and so many others, I am convinced that the 21st century problem with no name has a name, and the name is Emotional Labor. 

Emotional Labor: Why A Woman’s Work is Never Done and What To Do About It, by Regina F Lark.

So what do we do about it? What if we stopped labeling, judging and resenting ourselves? What if we replace that narrative with a new one? How are we going to do this?

First, we want to understand the requirements needed to perform the physical work of household management and the mental load of emotional labor—you know, everything women (and some men) do in the home to keep those around them comfortable and happy.

To get all the work done at home requires a nearly identical skillset to getting all the work done in the paid workplace. Simply put, it requires access to our “executive function,” a part of the brain located in the pre-frontal cortex. 

Our brain’s executive functions are what got us here on time today, allows us to manage emotions, and makes us able to sequence, plan and prioritize. Consequently, the very same cognitive skills that are necessary to run a successful company are also required to run a successful household. 

So when it comes to the work of the household, it looks like we have been referencing the wrong part of the body. 

And yet … the cultural expectation is that the physical work, and the mental load of emotional labor, will fall to women. And it is because of the historical myth that women are better at this work, that women are socialized to do the work, which starts when we teach our daughters to ‘play house.’ So by the time women partner with someone else, they are in fact better at it. Since men aren’t socialized the way women are, the distribution of emotional labor starts out, and remains, uneven.

We’ve known for decades that so-called “men’s work” at home is weekly or monthly and well-defined and over when it’s over. In fact, it’s done!

And so-called “women’s work” is never done—the work of emotional labor, the mental load, and the actual physical work is never, ever done.

By now you may be asking—or I hope you’re asking—how do we raise the bar to create greater household equity within our own four walls?

We raise the bar when we make the invisible, visible, and then, become a champion of “radical delegation.”

Think of and list all the invisible components required for every damn thing we do at home in order to get to the goal—like, for example, getting it together to bake cupcakes with a 5-year-old! Making the invisible visible, is an invaluable step, and will serve as the foundation for household equity.

The very same cognitive skills that are necessary to run a successful company are also required to run a successful household. 

As lists of tasks unfold, and the invisible becomes more obvious, I encourage to the next step—to embrace the art and practice of radical delegation.  

Coined by thought leader Judith Kolberg, radical delegation is the new way forward. Delegation, as we understand it, says the work is done by the person best suited to the task. Since women are traditionally raised to do household labor, it’s neither fair nor equitable that the bulk of household labor falls to them. 

Radical delegation is delegating to get work done, because it needs to be done! It is the work of the brain, not of the person. It’s not based on who’s better at it. It’s based on the fact that it needs to be done whether you’re great at it or not. The sooner we realize this, and do something to change it, the sooner women will feel relieved of their guilt, anxiety, frustration and shame. Radical delegation will lead to improved relationships, better functioning households, and, dare I say, a paradigm shift. Radical delegation is essential for true social and gender equity.

It works for a diverse range of households—whether straight or queer, households with one or two (or more!) adults can become more equitable. Research shows that households regardless of gender makeup are negotiating these tasks successfully. They have to talk about the division of household labor—the work is the work and not divided by gender. Research also shows, single men know how to change a roll of toilet paper, single women can change the oil in their car, and single people can remember when to the buy the ketchup. 

If a man can work from sun-to-sun, emotional labor explains why a woman’s work is never done. 

But now here’s the thing: The work of emotional labor doesn’t require a skirt, or lipstick, or a bra. It’s just work. When we make the invisible work of emotional labor very visible—glaring, in fact; put a big red bow around it and call it what it is: Work. Then we have a shot at sharing the work at home more equitably, and in a true partnership with the other adult in the room. 

I reimagine a world in which men posses a sense of agency and have access to their own ability in the home and with emotional labor, childcare, and the caring economy, long the domain of women—it’s time to disrupt this particular narrative.

Imaginge the kind of cultures this would create. Cultures that don’t have over 43 percent of marriages ending in divorce, that see more intact families, more corporate parity due to enhanced safety nets, and more robust gender equality overall. Because when we can identify gender equity at home, we’ll be able to recognize it in the paid workplace as well. 

In the words of Eve Rodsky, best-selling author of Fair Play, “Ultimately, we need to invite men into their full power in the home so we can unleash women into their full power in the world.” 

The work of the household is simply work that must be done. Nothing more, nothing less.

What makes one better or worse at it is a matter of function, not gender. When you leave here today, how do you plan to disrupt the narrative in your home? I know you want to. I wish you courage—and the mental and moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand fear and uncertainty. I wish you equity.  And I wish you love. Thank you. 

Up next:

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Dr. Regina Lark is a professional speaker and entrepreneur who holds a Ph.D. in women’s history from the University of Southern California. Her work in that field informs her third and most recent book, Emotional Labor: Why a Woman’s Work Is Never Done and What to Do About It. Lark helps women rid their lives of emotional labor by offering concrete ways to identify and mitigate the costs of women’s unseen, unnoticed and unwaged work at home, in order to unleash women into the full potential in the paid workplace. Dr. Lark is also a professional organizer and founder of A Clear Path, which provides professional physical, emotional and psychological support to people who wish to clear clutter and chaos from their lives.