So, I have been thinking a lot lately about sexism, not the blatant kind, but the more subtle, institutionalized kind, and how hard it is to combat. Sometimes when you try to, directly, people do not see it. They may even think you’re crazy or being too sensitive or something along those lines. And I wasn’t going to write this because a lot of what I have to say is pretty personal, about me and my husband and my kids. But I’m going to because it’s not that personal and a lot of people have the same experiences.
Let’s start with household work. This an issue I’ve been wrestling with for a long time (here, for example). I’m not a fan. I’ve said as much many times and part of my constantly writing about it, using tricks and tools to myself to tackle chores, is my way of trying to at least come to terms with the fact that it has to be done. This summer, as I think I mentioned in an earlier post, we had a quite heated family discussion about how basic household chores weren’t getting done. The conclusion of that is we came to some agreements about who is going to do what, etc. Prior to and what led to this discussion, Geeky Boy and I got into it when he complained about the state of things. My response was that he was welcome to pitch in any time. I also explained that it wasn’t that I liked the state of things, but that I was making a choice to do other things besides housework. I explained I placed more importance on reading, for example, or I might do work, instead of putting the dishes in the dishwasher instantly. It sounds like a simple conversation, but I was more pissed than I had been in a while.
In fact, I’ve returned to this conversation a few times in my head. I think Geeky Boy would say that he blames both Mr. Geeky and me equally for what he sees as lower household cleanliness than he would like. But I saw it partly as a direct affront to me, as a woman, wife, and mother, whose job is house and home, regardless of whether she works outside the home. Geeky Boy didn’t say this directly, but it was me he was getting testy with not Mr. Geeky, and I read into that. It’s a thought I’ve had many times, and that I’ve articulated many times. If someone stops by the house to visit and it’s messy, the visitor is more likely to blame the woman than the man for its state. Here are two very different takes on this (from a man, from a low income single mother). For the record, I know my anxiety over all this reflects my privileged status. I would not have time for concern otherwise.
Over the last month or so, the whole family has gotten into a better place with regard to housework. We’ve all built it into our daily routines and it’s now rare to see piles of dishes waiting to go into the dishwasher, waiting for the dishwasher to be unloaded. But it’s still the case that I have internalized the broader caring. It’s still the case that for things outside routine, I have to be explicit and nearly dictatorial to have someone else take on a task. Mr. Geeky nor the children ever think to randomly clean a toilet, but I do. Likewise, I’m more likely to clean up clutter when I see it and even organize it. I’m not blaming them. I’m blaming me and sexism. In 2017, I still hold onto, however small, this idea that the home is a woman’s responsibility.
Relatedly, I’ve also been thinking about work, generally, prompted by some things with my specific work. I love my job and over the last couple of years, my new role has required me to work outside of a regular work day. I’ve always done this, of course. There’s been grading or planning, email to respond to, but that’s been done on my own time around other things. Often the fact that I’m working is barely noticeable. Some of what I have to do now has an appointed time–a phone call to make or something with a deadline–or it’s a minor crisis that needs to be handled quickly and there’s no scheduling that around stuff. And so, I’ve found myself answering a call on a Saturday or over vacation. Or I’ve worked on something at night, getting takeout instead of cooking. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s part of my work.
I, personally, do not mind these interruptions to my personal life. I’ve always been asked, and I’ve always said yes. I know how to say no when I need to, and I have. Mr. Geeky got perturbed a couple of times when these things happened, even though I’d given him a heads up every time that x was going to call or y needed to be in by a certain time, damn being the weekend or being on vacation. I brushed it off and didn’t really engage in the issue in the moment. I just got back to doing whatever personal thing I had been doing. Before I go on, ask yourself if a man had done something similar, taken a call on a Saturday or finished up a report on the first day of vacation in order to get it in on time (as made-up examples), if he would get grief from society at large (I’ll concede he might from his wife). Probably not. And in fact, I can’t even begin to count the number of times Mr. Geeky has done this, especially before he got tenure. In fact, more recently, on our way to a family reunion, and pretty much up to the event itself, he was working on something to meet a deadline. I drove so that he could write on his computer. I didn’t mind at all, but when the shoe was on the other foot . . .
More broadly, I started thinking about how these two things–and many others that are pretty small like this–can add up to women deciding it’s not worth taking on hard, time-consuming work. Women can and do feel guilty about not keeping a clean house or being there for kids. If their husbands or others give them even indirect feedback that working during “family time” is verboten, they may decide to follow a career path that doesn’t ever require this kind of thing. As my children are adults now, I feel less pressure on the child-rearing thing and even, to some extent on the housekeeping thing. I like and want a clean house to reduce my own stress. It’s a personal desire that I am trying to get my family on board with (as I think it would reduce their stress too!).
Related to these two things are the many times I’ve heard people (okay, mostly men) complain about how women don’t write, blog, participate in panels, give keynotes, etc. as much as men. I try, they say, to recruit women/read work by women, but . . . If you think about what I mentioned above, there might be a good reason for that. If, during a woman’s downtime, she’s busy managing a household, she doesn’t have time for stuff outside the workday and if she tries, she may be subtly or not so subtly discouraged from doing work in her spare time, work that would, of course, forward her career.
Both of these are unwritten rules, things embedded in the system that work against equality in the workplace and equality more generally. We seem to still have expectations for women’s behavior and responsibilities that we don’t have for men. And we lack an understanding about the forces at work preventing women from achieving more career-wise when that career competes for time with “traditional” female responsibilities. I’m fighting against that in myself, but it’s hard. I sometimes catch myself weighing options and, rather than going against the grain, just caving to expectations.