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The gender pay gap and invisible labour

Is there a really an economic impact of the mental load?

Gender_pay_gap_in_Australia

Gender pay equality… it’s a hot topic.  No country in the world has yet been able to achieve equity in pay despite countless enquiries, equal opportunity policies and law reforms.  In Australia, the pay difference currently sits at 15.3% and has barely budged in the last 30 years (1).   Projected over a lifetime of earnings, that equates to hundreds of thousands of dollars (2)!

Some argue that this is because of industry differences (i.e. women often work in “caring” professions which are less well paid than more male-dominated industries).   Research from Australia’s National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling found, however, that the majority of the difference in wage gap was not in fact due to this industrial segregation but instead due to unobserved factors – simply being a woman (3).

The majority of the difference in the wage gap has been attributed to simply being a woman.

I propose that one of the main unobserved factors is the drastic imbalance in the mental load.  I have no doubt that further structural reform could help (hello…. improved parental leave schemes).  But I also have no doubt that carrying the majority of the mental load for one’s relationship does impact your career success and earnings – with or without taking children into account.  Furthermore, correcting this imbalance is something that each of us can achieve within our own relationship.  We don’t have to await improbable law and policy reform in the potentially distant future.

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One of the main unobserved factors contributing to the wage gap is the drastic imbalance in the mental load.

For many women, increasing work demands (e.g. project deadlines looming or returning to work post maternity leave) leads to more delegation at home.  We may ask for help with physical tasks that we will no longer have the time to do.  We may, for example, choose to hire a cleaner once a fortnight or ask our partner to pick up the children on certain days of the week.  And while on one hand we should be (and we are) grateful for this extra help, what hasn’t shifted is the mental load.  In the example of hiring a cleaner, it is still often the woman who does all the “invisible” work: finding cleaners, asking friends for recommendations, contacting the cleaner to see if they have availability, scheduling them and remembering to leave money out for them, and then still making sure the place is tidy enough to be cleaned by the chosen cleaner on the scheduled day.   Delegation can help alleviate physical jobs but is doesn’t reduce the mental load.

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And I get it.  Each individual mental load task often doesn’t seem that big! One woman contacted me via facebook @mentalloadproject.  She was fed up with her husband and her first statement was “divorce imminent”.  She had tried to explain to her husband how tiring and frustrating she found always being the one with all the necessary household information and planning in her head.  Her husband’s response was apparently: “How hard is it to pick the kids up from school and sign a few forms?”  So yes, hiring a cleaner or filling out a few forms may not seem like a big deal.  But it’s the sheer number and frequency of these tasks, plus the unfairness of it all falling to one person in a two-adult household that makes women feel “Fed Up” (to use the term from Gemma Hartley’s fantastic book).

So whilst we, as working women, spend our mental energy on the intricacies of each child’s childcare schedule and making sure the toilet paper doesn’t run out, what are our male co-workers thinking about?  Do they spend their free mental space thinking of KPI’s, budgetary goals, and CV building activities?  Or do they just spend time knowing the latest football results and thus are able to make key connections at the Friday afternoon drinks? Maybe they just think about nothing and then have valuable free brain space to be creative and come up with innovative ideas.  And when they are engrossed in a work-related activity, I bet that they are less likely to have their focus and productivity interrupted by texts and emails from the school reporting a minor school yard incident or unpaid tuckshop invoice.

Believing that imbalances in the mental load do not impact career success is like saying that brain space and mental energy is not a valuable asset to a productive worker!

Believing that imbalances in the mental load do not impact career success is like saying that brain space and mental energy is not a valuable asset to a productive worker!  Brain space and mental energy is, however, one of the biggest assets to any worker or indeed any person!  So ladies, and gentlemen (if you’ve got this far), let’s strive towards balancing the mental load in our own relationships for the sake of the gender pay gap (as well as ourselves).  As someone who has achieved this I can tell you it’s definitely worth it on some many levels!

We are excited to soon launch our brand new on-line course: Share the Mental Load: The complete, proven step-by-step formula to truly and sustainably share the mental load with your partner without chaos, friction or resentment. 

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