Stanford researcher urges universities, businesses to offer benefit to pay for housework

Londa Schiebinger's study shows academic scientists spend about 19 hours a week on basic household chores. If universities offered a benefit to pay someone else to do that work, scientists would have more time to spend on the jobs they're trained for, she says.

Londa Schiebinger

Londa Schiebinger, director of Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research

Cooking. Cleaning. Laundry. Not only are they chores most people would rather avoid, they're also enormous time drains.

Whether you realize it or not, all that nagging housework can be eating into your job productivity and getting in the way of you getting ahead in your career – especially if you're a woman, says Londa Schiebinger, director of Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research.

So here's her answer to that problem: Employers should offer benefits to help pay for someone to do your housework. Less time dusting and ironing means more time devoted to the job you're actually paid for.

"We're trying to get people more support in the household to lead to a better work-life balance," Schiebinger said.

In a paper published in the Jan. 19 issue of Academe, Schiebinger and co-author Shannon Gilmartin, a Clayman Institute research consultant, say scientists at 13 leading U.S. research universities spend an average of 19 hours a week doing basic housework like cooking, cleaning and laundry. And women do much more of the work than men, 54 percent to 28 percent.

The findings, culled from a survey of 1,200 tenured and tenure-track faculty in the natural sciences, are a spinoff from a study released in 2008 addressing the issues universities face in hiring dual-career academic couples.

Housework as academic issue

"We argue that work done in the home is very much an academic issue – not peripheral in any way to scientists' professional lives," Schiebinger and Gilmartin write in their paper. "Understanding how housework relates to women's careers is one new piece in the puzzle of how to attract more women to science."

Schiebinger says the amount of time female scientists devote to their jobs – about 60 hours a week – combined with their disproportionate share of housework and childcare – make young women think twice before going into the field.

And those who are successful usually pay someone else to do at least some of their housework. Schiebinger's study shows that despite their lower salaries, female assistant professors outsource as much housework as male full professors.

Creating a benefit to help offset cleaning costs would also help professionalize housework, a job that Schiebinger calls "invisible labor that isn't counted in the gross domestic product."

Outsourcing more of that work will create stronger, better paid jobs for professional housecleaners, much in the same way that childcare has been professionalized, she said.

While the study is focused on improving the work-life balance of female scientists working at universities, Schiebinger says housework benefits should become a standard perk for men and women in all professions.

She says employers need to think of housework benefits as "part of the structural cost of doing business," with the payoff being more productive employees able to spend more time in the lab, for instance, than doing household chores.

Poor use of resources

"It doesn't seem like a good use of resources to be training people in science and then having them do laundry," Schiebinger said in reference to Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins University, who was doing laundry when she got the call in October that she won the Nobel Prize in medicine.

Stanford offers faculty and staff a variety of benefits to help pay for health insurance, retirement plans, childcare, housing and college tuition. And workshops are held for junior faculty on how to balance their careers and their lives outside of work.

While Schiebinger's paper sheds more light on the demands faced by faculty, the university is not likely to implement her recommendations anytime soon, said Patricia Jones, vice provost for faculty development and diversity.

"The current challenge is that with universities under the financial pressures that they now have, this is a difficult time to add new benefits to what Stanford already provides," said Jones, who is also a biology professor and has relied on hired help to do housework throughout her career.

And when more money is available, university officials will have to discuss whether they should increase salaries or benefits, she said.

Schiebinger recognizes the difficulty universities and businesses would have in offering housework benefits right now. But just as healthcare, childcare and retirement benefits have worked their way into employee compensation packages, the idea of helping pay for household labor needs to be seriously considered to attract the best employees, she said.

"I wouldn't imagine that in a downturn you would start offering something like this," she said. "But this is thinking for the long term. If you ask what the United States workplace will look like in the next 20 years, benefits for housework should be part of the picture."

Adam Gorlick, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,