The Question of Unpaid Work: No, I’m Not Talking About Your Internship

By Guest Contributor

In her 2016 letter outlining her philanthropic goals for the year, Melinda Gates chose to focus on the question of unpaid work. Specifically, she outlined the imbalance in the amount of time men and women spend on tasks that must be done to fulfill necessary life functions. She is talking about chores. Gates notes that when it comes to cooking, cleaning and caring for children and the elderly, “in every part of the world, women spend more time on unpaid work than men do.” This is not just a problem of the “developing world”; even in Europe and North America, women average twice as much daily time on unpaid work than men.

If you were to take notice, you would find that this gap also exists at Middlebury. Last weekend at a party, I watched two young men tussle over a bottle of champagne and drop it, spewing the champagne all over the floor. Immediately, three women jumped into action to mop it up, while the students who created the mess returned to the party without a second thought. As a sophomore, I attended a small dinner with a visiting scholar. At the end of the meal, all of the female students, without exception, instinctively started cleaning up the meal, while all of the male students continued their conversation. And I have one female friend who has repeatedly requested to spend the night in my apartment because her male suitemate’s mess has made the space so inhospitable.

Of course, like most cases, this isn’t a simple binary issue of women do X while men do Y. At the Middlebury Women Leaders’ conflict resolution workshop with Laurie Patton last week, we spent half an hour workshopping a conflict in which a male participant could not convince his suitemate to wash his share of the dishes. Over the weekend, I was thrilled that a couple of men took the lead in cleaning up after the Hillel Bagel Brunch, a responsibility I assumed would fall to me as one of the organization’s presidents. But as much as I appreciated that they stood up to help, I don’t believe they deserve to be applauded. We expect women and girls to clean. It shouldn’t be a pleasant surprise when men and boys choose to pitch in, but rather there should be just as much of an expectation for them to contribute their time.

The issue of who does unpaid work is a matter of respect, both for the spaces we are lucky to inhabit and for the people with whom we cohabitate. As Middlebury students, there is little expectation for us to contribute to the typically unpaid work that is necessary for our daily functioning; we are lucky to have paid maintenance staff who upkeep all campus buildings. Perhaps it would help foster a sense of accountability if we were responsible for our own mess. Because there is currently minimal responsibility on students to do this unpaid work, there exists the perception that it is unworthy of our precious time. Although the maintenance staff does much of the heavy duty cleaning, the need for some small amount of unpaid labor persists in suites, superblocks, kitchens and other common spaces. We all know that time is a valuable, limited resource. Thus, the disparity in men’s versus women’s time spent on unpaid work is all the more devastating. It is important time that otherwise could be spent on studies, hobbies or professional development. Such is the opportunity cost of unpaid work. I promise that if you look around your residence or other spaces that are precious to you on this campus, there is more work to be done for this necessary upkeep. I challenge you to search for these opportunities and make your contribution of unpaid work, regardless of your gender.

Shelby Elise Friedman ’16 is from Dallas, Texas.

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