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We Need to Talk About Invisible Labor

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RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a transcript of this episode.

Show Notes

I want you to think about who did most of the work in your household growing up. Was it your mom, your grandma? Chances are, it was likely someone who identified as a woman doing the dishes, cooking the food and folding the laundry. 

Now, this obviously isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. There are countless family dynamics out there, some of which include men doing a large share of the work that it takes to keep a home and household running smoothly. But historically, and even today, that work is known as women’s work—and it’s often overlooked.

On this episode, we’re talking all about invisible labor, the home and caring work often left to women to coordinate and carry out, with University of Denver economics professor Paula Cole. 

Paula Cole is an economist at the University of Denver where she teaches on gender, care, and inequality. With more than 15 years of experience studying the gendered dimensions of the economy, Cole’s expertise centers on valuing caregiving in the home and the market, the gendered impact of economic policy, the feminization of poverty, and the intersections of gender, race, and class within economic lives. Cole is a passionate advocate for improving the economic lives of women from analyzing the economic impact of a paid family in Colorado, organizing women to run for public office with Colorado 50-50, or helping students to understand the value and importance of care in the economy through community engagement.

More Information:

Invisible labor is real, and it hurts: What you need to know

Invisible Household Labor and Ramifications for Adjustment: Mothers as Captains of Households

Invisible Labor: The Cost of Invisible Work

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Emma Atkinson:

You're listening to RadioEd, the University of Denver podcast. I’m your host, Emma Atkinson.

I want you to think about who did most of the work in your household growing up. Was it your mom, your grandma? Chances are, it was likely someone who identified as a woman doing the dishes, cooking the food and folding the laundry. 

Now, this obviously isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. There are countless family dynamics out there, some of which include men doing a large share of the work that it takes to keep a home and household running smoothly. But historically, and even today, that work is known as women’s work—and it’s often overlooked.

On this episode, we’re talking all about invisible labor, the home and caring work often left to women to coordinate and carry out.

Paula Cole (01:07):

it's invisible, because it's often not seen, or we tend not to think about it like so our clothes are clean. And we may or may not have thought about the process of them being clean or supper shows up on the table? And how did it get to the table. And sometimes we're, we're the ones doing the work are the ones helping the work. But historically, women have really been doing a lot of that invisible labor and are still today predominantly doing that work, even though we've seen an increase in men doing that work.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

That’s Paula Cole. She is a professor of economics in the University of Denver’s College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and she studies this kind of stuff, including the economics of caring, gender and the economy.

Paula Cole (01:35):

If I were to add something to that definition, I think one of the challenges around invisible labor is the fact that because it's less seen, we're less aware of it and tend to not value it in the same way as some of the other work that people do. And I think that that creates an economic disadvantage for women who are predominantly doing this work.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

According to a study by the United Nations, women take on three out of every four hours of unpaid labor. What is unpaid labor? Well, it’s that work that isn’t work but is still…work. Cleaning, cooking, coordinating. It’s the picking up the kids from school or tidying the living room. And women still do most of it.

Cole says she doesn’t believe the market—the economy—would function without the work that’s done inside the home.

Paula Cole (03:34):

So to get to our jobs, we need to clean clothes, we need food to eat, we need someone to care for us. So we, we really need that work to happen for any of the labor market work that's paid to really be facilitated or even go to school to, to increase our skill sets in the future. And so invisible labor is really at the heart of our economy, and our economy wouldn't function very well, without all of that work being done.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Let’s add another layer to this invisible labor: the emotional and mental load of running a household. Cole explains better here.

Paula Cole (04:22):

alright, what's the calendar for today? Who's picking up the kids who's dropping them off? Did we pack lunches? What do we have after school? Who's working late? What do I have to do in that, like all those things that running list of what has to be done to manage a household is definitely part of the mental load. And then emotional labor is really thinking about how care work is both doing and feeling. It's, you know, you hold the baby and you'll get that warm, fuzzy feeling because you love the baby. But then also knowing that you need to change the diaper and feed the baby and you're tired because they woke you up in the middle of night. So but we tend to think about it care work often being done out of love. And we, we tend to ask more questions around whether when folks are doing it for money. I think teaching is a good example of that, you know, do teachers teach because they love though the work? Or do they teach because they need income? Or why can it be both like most jobs and thinking about those pieces. So I think invisible labor is really central to how homes function and how families grow and get out in the world. And we tend to not value it quite as much.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Even the women who do get paid to do this work—think nannies and caregivers—are often overlooked by society.

Paula Cole (05:57):

When we think about the global care crisis, and how countries throughout the world are struggling with making sure care needs are met within the home. One of the things or one of the ways that we've contributed to that or challenges we face today is that, for white women in particular, who tend to have more resources, it's easier to kind of hire someone to do that work. So hiring someone to come in and clean, because you don't have the time but on. But you're fortunate enough maybe to have the resources to doing that hiring, or hiring someone to care for the children. And what we've seen globally is kind of this migration of women to developed countries to do some of this care work, primarily for those who have greater wealth, which tends to be white women, in many developed countries. But then at the same time, when those women, you know, migrating take those care jobs, which tend to be fairly good paying jobs in comparison to maybe the jobs that might have had back in their home country, it then leaves us care deficit in their home country, because now we are, they're lacking those caregivers within their own homes. And so we have this conundrum about because care work is devalued. No one's really jumping up to do it. And so then those who have the least economic power are more likely to do that. I would add specifically here in the US that we've really have relied on black and brown women to do that care work if we think about our history of slavery, and the role of black women in homes doing so much caregiving work, and invisible labor in that sense. And not being paid for it in a context of slavery. And so that devaluation is somewhat of a continuation of that process. So many women are dealing with invisible labor, not all women. And I would note to that over time that we see more men engaging in this work, but it's still not kind of a balanced load within the home, women are still doing much more.

Emma Atkinson (interview audio, 08:11):

So we've kind of mentioned two things here. And I want to, I want to delineate them as much as we can. So we've talked about invisible labor in the home, by the women who live and work there. And then we've also talked about this, this care economy, right of people, mostly women who are coming into other people's homes to do care, is that also considered invisible labor.

Paula Cole (08:40):

Not so much invisible labor there it when we're hiring it in the marketplace, but the way that they intersect, like even though that's that work tends to be paid. It's harder for us to see those workers like we don't really see the individual nannies and maids within homes, the way we might see a collective group of factory workers. And it's much harder for those workers to ensure that they're paid fair wages and have the type of labor conditions that workers should expect, here in the US. So I would say it's still invisible in that we may or may not be seeing who's doing the work. But what makes it different is that distinction about being paid or unpaid, right, so it's still the care work. But in this context, we're actually paying and that's one of the interesting things that I find intriguing about exploration of care work, is the role that paying for the work changes the way we think about it. And we have tended to push it to kind of push it to the market and have the market pay for that, that care at work. But even in the market, those jobs are some of the lowest paying jobs out there. And so a large extent of that really is connected to that definition of care work that I offered, where because it's about care, invisible labor, we tend to not value it and be less attuned to needing this work, even though we all actually need this work that's being done.

Emma Atkinson (interview audio, 10:17):

And what do you think are some of the historical reasons for that? Why do we value care labor, so much less than, say, someone who's a firefighter or works in the stock market or something like that?

Paula Cole (10:27):

Well, I think it's, it's complex, what my initial offering might be that we've historically seen more of that kind of private public distinction, and who's thinking about economics and who are economist and so one of my favorite things to do in my gender, and the economy class is to ask my students to list female economist. And their list is often really, really short, happy to say sometimes I show up on the list, because it's early in the quarter. But I also asked them to list male economists, and their list is really long. And historically, men were doing a lot of thinking about defining the economy, let's count it in the economy, what has value and what doesn't have value. And I think that historically, men were really telling men's economic stories, and didn't necessarily create some of that space for the economic experiences of women. And we've seen with more women economist and the expansion of feminist economic theory, this greater push to make sure that economics is telling the story of all genders, and capturing those experiences, even if it's not just done in the market, and just paid work that all of this has economic value, and all of its productive.

Musical interlude

Emma Atkinson (VO):
Now, it’s that time of year that people are spending more time at home. They’re off work, spending the holidays with family, hosting. Hosting. Who does the hosting? Spoiler alert: it’s the ladies.

Cole did something really cool here: She took a look at the unpaid, often unseen work that it takes to put together a Thanksgiving meal.

Paula Cole (12:29):

So this was a fun opportunity to think about the invisible labor that goes into Thanksgiving. So I made a list. It's kind of a long list, but bear with me, because I think it captures some of the things around invisible labor that really matters. So the list I came up with is to have that Thanksgiving celebration, and you are hosting it, you need to think about inviting the guest…

Emma Atkinson (VO):

…making travel arrangements…

Paula Cole (12:54):

…deciding on a date and time coordination, you need to plan the menu you need to do the grocery shopping, you need to do the cooking, which means burning the turkey monitoring the turkey all day, making the pies…

Emma Atkinson (VO):

…the sides, the snacks, the appetizers…

Paula Cole (13:09):

you need to clean the home, pre and post gathering, meaning you have dishes you have floors, bathrooms, maybe extra bedding, and the guest room, all of those pieces….

Emma Atkinson (VO):

You might even need to think about what clothes everyone is wearing for the big meal.

Paula Cole (13:26):

Are you going to decorate the home for Thanksgiving? And what it might look like are do you have particular traditions that you uphold around Thanksgiving that you need to make sure you have have the necessarily supplies for and so like that was my running list, I'm sure I left some things out. But even then I was like, as I was writing it down, I'm like, wow, this is overwhelming, just writing it down, much less actually doing all those things. And I then from that list, I then tried to estimate how much time I thought folks might be spending doing these different activities and what they are and and I came up with a low and a high estimate of how much time.

Paula Cole (14:47):

My estimate for time was that at the low end, it would take 10 hours if you're maybe not going all out. Right That would be a really low estimate, in my opinion. You're keeping things really simple. The high end I Put closer to 24 hours to actually do most of that work in doing that, and I'm sure that for different individuals and different sized celebrations and number of folks, it would vary but 10 to 24 hours women are spending for the celebration that happens once a year. And maybe that's why we're doing more of it, because it is a once a year kind of thing. Yeah, I think. So my first way to estimate was that that idea of using a time use survey and just thinking about time as a measurement for what women are spending, and, you know, if women are doing all the planning, they're spending all that time versus thinking about how it might be shared or not shared, and what it looks like.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

The second way to look at things, Cole says, is from a dollars and cents perspective.

Paula Cole (15:58):

 So we look at what's produced within the economy and take, take that times the price of those goods, and that gives us some reflection of how much it costs, you know, the value of that within our economic system, invisible labor becomes a bit harder, because again, it's typically unpaid work being done at the home that we're less likely to see. But economists have come up with alternative ways to measure it the to kind of really focus on looking at what it means to maybe purchase replacement. So if you've hired someone to do the work, what would that costs would be one example.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Now let’s think about what the numbers would be like if we were to pay someone for all the work it takes to put together a Thanksgiving.

Paula Cole (16:39):

When we look at purchasing replacements for that Thanksgiving dinner, I use Denver numbers, and I was thinking a family of four, that Thanksgiving dinner to buy cooked was ranging between 150 and $250. Hiring a cleaner for a three bedroom home was 200 to $400. Maybe you need a travel agent, because you're flying or folks are flying in 100 to $500. And then I added personal assistants for some of those other pieces, like they're going to go pick up the dinner, or they're going to maybe send out the invites or make the phone calls. And I said five to 10 hours. So using that option of like hiring replacements, the value came out to $555 at the low end to $1,360 at the high end, for that day's celebration.

The other way we could kind of come up with that. cost estimate is what we call opportunity costs. And an economics we call that like looking at what's given up. And so here, obviously, she's spending time creating this Thanksgiving celebration, she's not spending time working in a paid wage job. And so we could think about what kind of wages she earns. And so I use just kind of the average hourly wage for women here in the US, which came out to be about $25. And I then took it times my time estimates from earlier of that 10 to 24 hours. So if she's putting in 10 hours in it's worth $250 of her time, that's just her time, that's not the turkey and everything else. If she's spending 24 hours, that would be $600 would be the value of our time.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

What does that add up to over 40 years? Ten- to twenty-four thousand dollars worth of time that a woman would be giving up to do unpaid labor.

Paula Cole (18:48):

I would note too, that, you know, when we use the opportunity cost approach and wages, it's probably worth considering what her wages. So the average range really would would vary and thinking about how that approach in some ways is kind of mixed about that one, because, you know, some women are going to be making well, more than 25. And some are less but you know, does the value of that time they're spending. Is it really that different? And you know, that's one of the critiques about putting invisible labor in terms of dollar values. Can you put a price on Thanksgiving dinner? And the love that your mom put into it right as we might historically, think about it in different ways? The answer is yes, we can as economists, but we might have some disagreements about how we decided to calculate that value. I didn't do this but I did think of this. I was like, well, it is a holiday. Maybe she should have been paid time and a half, which would up that total.

Emma Atkinson (interview audio, 19:57):

Wow, that’s a chunk of change.

Paula Cole (20:01):

It is right, like, you know, at that low end estimate of $10,000. I was like, wow, what could women, you know, how would $10,000? What could it have been spent on instead? Or, you know, that $250 at the low end estimate of the cost? Yeah, there's lots of other things that we could maybe purchase or pay for and do and, but I think that, you know, even when we put it in dollars, it doesn't really account for, like the energy, the emotions and the memories that are associated with it. So one might say that maybe it's worth more than that in, in that particular context.

Emma Atkinson (interview audio, 20:54):

Why does this fall in women's laps, in particular, this invisible labor?

Paula Cole (21:02):

I really think it goes back to our social gender norms that we, as a society, we've constructed gender expectations and assigned caregiving roles, predominantly to women, it definitely relates to biology, some might say it leans more to biology. But regardless of whether you think it's more biological or social, what we do know for certain is that we've asked women to do more of the caregiving work within the homes and within the marketplace. And so we've we put that greater pressure, I think the asking women to be the caregivers is not really the problem. For me as the economist, it's more of the fact that we devalue that work. And it has real economic costs for women in doing this work. So women have less economic stability, because of the caregiving work that they're doing, whether it's at Thanksgiving, or on a regular weekday, and they had to leave work early because their, their kiddo was sick. Or they had to take the job with flexible hours, so they could pick up the child after school. But over a lifetime, that has real economic consequences for women.

Emma Atkinson (22:34):

What's next? You know, how, where do we go from here?

Paula Cole (22:38):

I anticipated that. So I was like I was thinking about Alright, well, how do we change this? What did How does it look differently? And I actually had questions for folks to ponder versus having the clear solution.

The first one that might be offered is really just thinking about how do we encourage men to share this work, right like that. It is important work for families and homes and thinking about how everyone in the home should maybe contribute to the work that needs to be done to maintain the home and the family well being. And so how do we share those burdens? This is tough for men in a way that's different than women. Because when we think about the gender wage gap, and knowing on average, men are earning more than women, that taking time away from the labor market is giving up more for them. But if we wanted to improve women's economic well being and give them more stability, I think men might need to sacrifice a little bit of those extra economic earnings to make her more economically stable. And this matters in a range of different ways whether we think about women living longer and having less saved for retirement because they earn less in the labor market, or the reality that many relationships don't last in the long run. And so she's going to need to be independently, economically stable on our own, but encouraging men to show this work. And this matters in the workplace as well. Because the more men doing care work, the more it's going to encourage changes to workplace policies that support care workers, and making sure their needs are being met in the workplace. When there's more voices saying, Hey, I gotta get home to pick up my my child from school like, yeah, the fact that our workdays and our school days, those times and dates don't match up, it seems like we could do a better job of that. That would be a simple solution for a lot of folks. Well, maybe it sounds simple, but definitely one that would make a difference.

The second question I would pose to everyone would be how might we collaborate with family or community so that kind of sharing the load by not having to do it all I know that was a strategy used by my grandmother when we were growing up it was everybody was asked to bring us I did write, so she wasn't doing all the side dishes. She did the turkey. And my aunt's and my mom, they would bring a lot of the other stuff. And so everyone's doing a little bit. And then we had this great meal because of that. So yeah, I think, yeah, changing that tradition to not just be individualized in the home, but making it more collaborative.

The third one here, I think, is tough, because it's about changing norms. And I think one of the things that's been true as we've seen technology increase and the presence of social media that in some ways we've put more pressure on us to have that kind of Instagram holiday. And maybe we maybe we should just lower our expectations and dial back. Do we need to do it all when it comes to Thanksgiving? And you know, what, some of that time be better spent outside playing with the family, versus trying to make it a really perfect meal? Do we need that extra side dish that was there. But I think that you know, is really thinking about pressures women put on each other to really have these holiday traditions and to make them memorable, and to make them amazing. And, yeah, it's interesting, like, you know, there's the example for like the dishwasher, one would have thought that the dishwasher would have really made a big difference in the amount of time spent cleaning dishes. And in fact, the dishwasher and the washing machine, actually essentially resulted in this increased expectation of cleanliness, cleanliness, we actually cleaned things a bit more now with that technology, rather than keeping the expectation the same, and having more time for other things. So yeah, what are our expectations? And where do we want to really invest that time, or money in our families, and our homes.

And the last one that I really wanted to end with really connects back to recognizing that across the globe, brown and black women are doing a lot of the care work for all of us, and they are underpaid and doing that work. And when I think about the tradition of Thanksgiving here in the US, I think about if we're going to change that holiday a little bit, how might we honor indigenous folks in this holiday? And how might that change the way we think about this holiday and how we celebrate it, and whether it's a family feast at home, or whether it's collaborating and connecting with community members around the history connected to this particular holiday.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

So there you have it. Four questions to ponder as you consider the issue of invisible labor this holiday season. And Thanksgiving may be over, but Cole’s last message still resonates for the remainder of the holiday hosting season:

Paula Cole (28:24):

I think if any of us were asked about like, you know, how much do we value our Thanksgiving holiday memories, and it would be really difficult for us to put a price on it. But I think that, yeah, give your mom an extra hug for doing that extra work or even better, rather than sitting down to watch the football game. Be like, Hey, Mom, why don't you watch the football game, I'll do the dishes. Because that sharing the workload really matters and sharing the cost of those those memories we're creating.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

A big thanks to our guest, University of Denver economics professor Paula Cole, for sharing her expertise with us on this week’s episode. More information on her work is available in the show notes. If you enjoyed this episode, I encourage you to subscribe to the podcast on Apple Music or Spotify—and if you really liked it, leave us a review and rate our work. It really helps us reach more people. Joy Hamilton is our managing editor, and James Swearingen arranged our theme. I'm Emma Atkinson, and this is RadioEd.

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