March is Women’s History Month, which celebrates the contributions made by women in various domains of our society. While we tend to focus on women throughout history, it’s as good a time as any to also turn our eyes towards the women of today, those managing the ins and outs of modern life. Despite advances – women’s suffrage and the four waves of feminism, to name a few – sexism is still deeply woven into our society in overt and covert ways. It wasn’t all that long ago when women were expected to assume the “housewife” role, caring for the children, and managing household chores like cooking and cleaning, all while wearing a dress, heels, and a smile. Oh, and running a household was not valued as labor.
Today, many women have careers outside of the home, yet much of the domestic labor still falls on their shoulders. Unsurprisingly, women report high levels of burnout! For many families, the COVID-19 lockdowns drew attention to the actual (and often unequal) division of labor in their relationships and highlighted just how undervalued women continue to be, both in their communities, their workplaces, and their homes.
Want to better support the women in your life? First, you need to know about all the invisible work they’re doing.
Some helpful terms to keep in mind:
If you’re a fan of The Office, you may remember the episode when someone leaves a gross food mess in the shared break room microwave. Ryan approaches Pam at her desk and insinuates she should clean it. When she suggests that he, as the temp, should be the one to clean it, he claims, “Oh no, trust me, I would just make it worse…Pam, I’m hopeless to that stuff” and walks away. In this example, Ryan employs weaponized incompetence, which is when one person pretends to be bad at something so it becomes the responsibility of another.
Weaponized incompetence made the rounds on TikTok last year for good reason; it’s unfortunately super common! It can happen in almost any relationship, but women often bear the brunt of it, experiencing it both at work and at home.
In addition to tangible household chores, women also tend to carry the mental load, also known as “worry work.” This refers to cognitive and emotional labor, including planning, decision-making, organizing, and anticipating the needs of others. This is the stress that comes with remembering your child has a school project due next week, that you’re out of bread and need to stop by the store later, that you need to follow up about carpooling, that you should check in with and support your partner during a stressful time at work. The mental bandwidth required is huge and doesn’t just lead to burnout but mental health issues as well.
So how can you be a better partner to the women in your life?
Just to preface, this advice is not exclusively for men in heterosexual relationships. These tips are for anyone who has a mother, sister, daughter, partner, coworker, or friend that seems a bit overwhelmed and can use some support!
- Appreciation and acknowledgment are great starting points. Let her know that you see how much labor and effort she exerts, and express gratitude! For many women, one of the most frustrating things is how invisible much of their labor is, so name it and bring it into view.
- Listen! Ask her how she is doing and be attentive. Give her the space to vent and share her grievances. Use active listening: maintain good eye contact, validate her emotions, and ask relevant questions.
- Throw weaponized incompetence aside! If you genuinely don’t know how to do something, ask to be taught and then take the initiative to do that task moving forward.
- Ensure that you have other means of support so the burden does not always fall on her. If she’s overwhelmed, then it may be a good time to call a friend or another family member to vent about work stress.
- Perhaps the most obvious: take some of the load off of her! Maybe that’s doing the dishes more often, taking a more active parenting role, engaging in more of the planning and organizing work…or cleaning the microwave in the break room!
All this to say: women deserve better than the support they’re getting (or more often, not getting). Understanding just how much labor falls to her is the first step to lightening her load and being a better partner.