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The division of invisible labour

The division of invisible labour

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Ketut Subiyanto via Pexels.

FEM roundtable discussion

How are my PhD students doing? How do I explain to my child that I have to work even though I’m at home? How do I stay in touch with my friends and family online? These are just a few answers to the question “what was on your mental load list these past few months”. This question was asked during the FEM roundtable discussion on invisible labour of women in academia, last Tuesday on Zoom.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, female researchers have submitted fewer articles for publication than their male counterparts. Even before COVID-19 struck, women in Europe were the ones who did most of the care work in most families. No wonder, then, that FEM, the female empowerment network of Maastricht University, felt it was high time to organise a discussion on the fair division of both physical care work and the mental load that comes with it. About forty women and one man joined in on Tuesday.

The latter in particular often falls to women. They’re the ones who remember dentist appointments, plan the groceries and buy birthday presents for their fathers-in-law. This to-do list is often invisible to other people, as most of the work takes place in their heads.

The coronavirus crisis added even more items to the list. Alena Sander, PhD student at the Centre for Development Studies of KU Leuven in Belgium and Claire Grauer, PhD student and research associate at the Institute of Environmental and Sustainability Communication of Leuphana University of Lüneburg in Germany, decided – in addition to their regular work – to talk to 24 female European researchers about their mental load, especially during the coronavirus crisis.

“I myself realised I’d hit a mental wall”, said Sander during the roundtable discussion. “I had five hours a day to myself, to work, but I couldn’t focus.” This was relatable not just to the women in their study, but also to the participants in the roundtable discussion.

It helped Sander to discuss the invisible labour with her partner. She made a list. “Mine was much longer than his. For example, I scheduled all doctor’s appointments for our ill son and was looking for another child care centre in case ours closed.” Communicating helps, the other participants agreed. Sander: “He now takes over certain responsibilities from me. And sometimes I shout ‘mental load!’ and whatever is on my mind at that moment, just to get it off my chest.”

But what if your partner isn’t open to this, asked one of the participants. “He thinks I’m exaggerating.” Let him take the initiative, someone else advised. “Ever since we don’t get groceries until he makes a shopping list, he takes on many more tasks.”

A student wondered how to avoid ending up in this situation later on in life. “Learn to say no”, was Grauer’s advice. “Before taking on a new task, ask yourself: how much of a mental load will this bring with it? If it’s more than you can handle at that moment in time, say no.” The other participants shared similar advice. Lower your standards. Just because you’re good at something, doesn’t mean you always have to be the one to do it. Accept that you can’t do everything. But, as most of the participants know from experience, this is easier said than done.

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