Is this a gender issue?
Lazy, sensationalist journalism sees this issue as a male versus female, men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus issue. But we don’t agree, and it wasn’t backed up in our book.
We found that it was more than gender because we interviewed women in same-sex relationships too. For those women, granted the imbalance was significantly reduced, but still, in most same-sex relationships, the imbalance was still, stubbornly there with one person carrying the ‘mental load’.
So, even while many same-sex coupled women had a more equal allocation of tasks, one person was generally more likely to know what needs to be done, when and how.
This point shows that, even where there are no gendered allocation of tasks (male does the outside work and the heavy work, woman does the caring and cleaning inside) quite obviously because they are both of the same sex, this issue still persisted. In our book, the same-sex participants who reported the worst imbalances were those with children. (Note: One of our authors is in a same-sex relationship).
What about single people?
Single people living on their own are obviously in a different boat, but we also included women in share-housing or group housing in our data.
In that cohort, we found an imbalance in some of the mental load. So, even not being in a committed relationship can’t fix this problem. Someone in the share house was responsible for remembering to pay the bills, for noticing when the fridge was empty and for reminding the tenant in the back room that this was their week to clean the toilet.
Is it workplace participation?
Part of this issue comes from the imbalance in housework not keeping pace with the reality of working women’s lives.
In The Superwoman Myth, we found that, in some extreme cases, a 1960s allocation of household labour was butting up against a 2020s allocation of employment. But, even in the most balanced of households, in most heterosexual families, both partners, whether they had children or not, were in the workforce. So, each adult was contributing to the family’s finances. Our findings reflect the findings of workplace studies which show women’s workforce participation has increased since the 1980s.
And, many of our women were university graduates, reflecting trends that women are, on average, better educated than ever before, and even better educated on average than men.
We’re all doing more than our mothers did. We’re working, we’re still doing the bulk of the housework, and, on average, we are spending more time with our children than our mothers’ did. Interestingly, though are more likely to be present with them, we’re less active to be involved in active play with them.
So, if we’re doing more, why are we still carrying the mental load? No wonder we’re stressed and the pandemic has made it harder.
Alright smarty-pants, what did the book say we should do about it?
The Superwoman Myth suggests, despite government policies and workplace reforms, there doesn’t seem to be a way out of this inequality between men and women.
The issues appear to be stubbornly entrenched. We may have more education, more opportunities and more time in the workforce, but we are still carrying more of the mental load.
Our participants said that the biggest issue was that they hadn’t or didn’t explain their feelings clearly enough to their partners. So, having a discussion in your relationship is essential. It may help to explain the mental load, and discuss ways to balance it more. Your health relies on it!