A few weeks ago, I wrote a brief piece for proF reflecting on Anne Helen Petersen’s article for Buzzfeed on millennials and burnout. In the article, she linked to a comic called “You Should’ve Asked” (aka “the Mental Load”) by a French cartoonist named Emma, and I haven’t been able to forget it since. I was blown away by how precisely it captured gender inequality in household work, something that most of us – even if we have feminist partners, and even if we don’t have children – experience.
And in case you didn’t know, things are definitely still not equal when it comes to household duties. A 2017 study by Springer confirmed that women still do more housework than their male partners, and the previous year, a UK Office of National Statistics study found that women do 60% more unpaid work than men – and while that was UK-specific, the numbers sound about right for the US as well.
So while many of us are already aware of this issue, Emma’s comic is particularly insightful in its emphasis on “the mental load” of managing a household. This will hit home for women of my generation: we are more likely to have progressive, feminist partners who will say they believe in sharing household duties, and yet more often than not, we still end up with the lion’s share of household work. This, at least in my case, is largely due to the “you should’ve asked” phenomenon. As Emma writes, “When a man expects his partner to ask him to do things, he’s viewing her as the manager of household chores. So it’s up to her to know what needs to be done and when.” She compares this to working as a project manager, which is a full-time job itself, and yet at home, women are expected to complete the majority of “projects” as well.
The rest of the comic deftly explores the myriad ways in which women bear the mental load and men shrug it off. On her way to completing one chore, she notes, a woman will often notice other tasks that need to be completed, multiplying her workload. This isn’t as true for men. Emma gives the example of a friend who asks her husband to take the baby’s bottle out of the dishwasher once it’s completed the cycle. The next morning, she finds he did exactly as asked: the bottle is on the counter, and the dishwasher is still full of clean dishes waiting to be unloaded.
So what creates this problem? Just a look at the comments sections shows how widespread these scenarios are. The answer, Emma posits, is simple conditioning. “There’s nothing genetic or innate about this behavior,” Emma writes. “But we’re born into a society. . . in which we see our mothers in charge of household management, while our fathers only execute the instructions. And in which culture and media essentially portray women as mothers and wives, while men are heroes who go on fascinating adventures away from home. This conditioning will take effect from our earliest years, and on into adulthood.”
At the end of the comic, she discusses possible solutions. For men to feel that their home is equally their responsibility, she suggests that more men demand longer paternity leave, and that we try to raise our children away from harmful stereotypes. Likewise, women can talk to their partners about re-dividing up chores and learn to take time for themselves without feeling guilty. But with an issue this ingrained, it will take time and possibly even another generation to find real balance.
Though this comic specifically tackles the mental load in the household, it also got me thinking about its application to female academics and service. A 2017 study revealed that women take on significantly more service work than men, in what is sometimes termed “taking care of the academic family.” So in addition to being household managers, are women academics often expected to be “department managers”? And what impact does this have on women’s career advancement?
Clearly, the concept of the “mental load” is a universal one, and the more men and women talk openly about this issue, the more we can move toward greater gender equality. This comic is a great start.