The impact of invisible work on relationships and sanity

Women do most of the invisible work – managing half, not all, should be their goal

Women strive to have it all, but maybe managing half would be even better. At least it would release them from their responsibilities for invisible work.

Male participation in the workforce has historically been reliant on domestic support. Now women want the same. But it’s a problem. Women frequently assume or slide into the role of Head of Household Operations, responsible for all unpaid, invisible work. So how do they maintain their sanity and protect their relationships at the same time?

Invisible Work

Invisible work first gained academic attention in Ann Oakley’s The Sociology of Housework (1974) which examined the roles of London housewives. At this time, with a stricter gender role split between men and women, being in charge of the household although a source of power for women, was even back then reported as being unfulfilling, with 70% claiming dissatisfaction.

Four decades later, despite a higher number of women working outside the home, the reality is that things aren’t changing as you might expect.  Men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women work 13. When it comes to caring for family members men note ten hours, and women 23. This means women spend 18 extra hours every week doing unpaid work.  Doing the basic maths, based on an 8 hour day, that is 117 additional working days per year more than their male partners. This invisible work is unpaid, unrecognised and for the most part only becomes visible when it doesn’t happen.


Sally’s story

Sally is a professional woman, married with two children. She works 80% time, although the reality is that she spreads the hours of the day she is not in the office over the other four days. Her husband Jack is also a professional and by many standards considered to be a paragon father. When you see him with the children your observation is that he is a hand’s on dad. You might comment on how things have changed, or how “lucky” Sally is. You would be astonished to hear that Sally is at her wit’s end with the stress of managing it all. She is what in business terms is the Head of Household Operations. Sally doesn’t want to manage it all. She wants to shift responsibility for 50% of this invisible work and manage half.

Women tend to assume the role of  Head of Household Operations (HOHO). It’s a default position. They didn’t apply. There was no interview. They have no KPIs, and objectives change daily. There is no end of year bonus or acknowledgement in the newsletter.  It just happens and creeps upon them.  Male partners are often times the first port of call in a network used for the delegation of tasks of various levels of significance. They are less frequently part of the household operational “management committee.” They “help” their partners.

Be as well organised in your job hunt as you are with managing the house by using this online workshop.

What is invisible work

Most women complain that as the Head of Household Operations their roles involve such tasks as staying on top of school calendars, play date arrangements, managing menus and food supplies, organizing baby sitters, returning permission slips, calling the garden company, arranging social events,  responding to invitations and getting up to sick kids.  Research from Mumsnet identifies 36 jobs women routinely carry out than men do not.

Sally was genuinely bemused. Jack, she said, was very willing and open to doing things, but he needed direction. “It’s a bit like having an unfocused intern who needs coaching on time management and prioritizing.”  She, like many other women, finds the effort of managing the invisible work exhausting. So why do women proudly announce they run households as well as their professional responsibilities? Then go on tell people how exhausted and confused they are.

An article in Harper’s Bazaar covers this beautifully. The author bemoans her husband’s lack of engagement in things domestic and reiterates Sally’s experience about Jack expecting to be asked to do a task and given recognition when completed.

Don’t just outsource your household chores, outsource your networking by learning how to use LinkedIn to your best advantage.

Millennials and invisible work

Many Millennials in particular grew up in households where there was traditional split of gender roles. Some people not even semi-jokingly refer to “pink and blue” chores, that is jobs that men do and chores carried out by women. Men of previous generations were at least generally autonomous within their category. However today’s situation is complicated further that these life skills have not been passed on to their kids. Many Millennials are reported to be unable to do even basic DIY or household maintenance. This means that the role of Head of Household Operations has a greater reach than in previous generations and managing it all has become “managing even more than before.”

The scope of outsourced tasks has extended. Chores often dealt with previously within a couple in a gender stereotyped way are now considered outsourceable. This requires increased managerial input or emotional labor, as well as budget, to manage the invisible work.  Women are also now Head of Outsourcing.

Sally told me “Task Rabbit is my go to website.”

Relationship management

Women are raised to protect and nurture their relationships. Those that insist on equal partnerships are viewed as nags or worse; strident ball breakers. Boys somehow at a critical time in their upbringing got a free pass when it came to taking responsibility for their domestic environment. Rather the reverse happened, they were rewarded when they behaved beyond gender expectations, thus growing up to understand that this was exceptional behavior. And although research shows that while some Millennial men are doing more household tasks than previous generations, it’s not as much as they think.

Somehow women have to bridge the divide between protecting their relationships, because this is seen to be their role, and their sanity. Sally wants to know how she and Jack can change without causing major issues in their marriage.  For those that can afford it, low value work can be outsourced. She wryly commented that she felt sure that Jack and his friends and colleagues were not having the same conversations she has within her own friendship group.

 Research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that outsourcing domestic work increases happiness. Men may not be motivated to change a system that works well for them. Women should stop saying they want to have it all and make managing half their goal.

Do you want to relate your strong household leadership skills to office life? Contact us for a Career Coaching session to maximise your potential.





3Plus online e-Gazine for professional women, Gender Balance, Relationships, Work-Life Integration
Web | Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she joins the dots between organisations, individuals, opportunity and success.

Leave a Reply

Found that interesting? Learn more about our services
Individual services
Make your dreams a reality with a professional evaluation of your career to date.
more info
Corporate services
The evidence is in. More women in your company can deliver 35% greater financial returns. (Catalyst)
more info
Upcoming events
Currently we don't have upcoming events
Download and listen free podcasts
Why all women need a strong LinkedIn profile
Free Download

Data on women on LinkedIn has always been hard to get and analyse, but some new information sheds light on how women use the platform differently to their male colleagues and what those differences mean. You will find out why you need a strong LinkedIn profile.

It has always been difficult to identify women on LinkedIn because it’s not possible to do a search based on gender. Any efforts to track women on LinkedIn specifically, involve complex Boolean strings involving pronouns or searching via women’s clubs, universities and networks. So any analysis has always been more anecdotal around perceptions and personal experience, rather than data based. However research from 2017  using LinkedIn member profile data for members in the United States over the past 12 months. Published on the LinkedIn blog it supports pretty much what we already know about women on LinkedIn.

LinkedIn  is the main professional data base used globally by hiring managers and recruiters, yet women continue to engage less than their male colleagues, putting themselves at a distinct professional disadvantage. Now we have some facts and figures as well as tips and tricks to persuade  you to up your game. All women have to have a strong LinkedIn profile. No ifs and buts.


How to Get Noticed by Head Hunters & Recruiters
Free Download

In this power coaching podcast, we’re going to tackle one of the questions asked multiple times a week by active job seekers and passive candidates.

How can I get noticed by head hunters and recruiters and connect with them?

In this short power coaching podcast Dorothy Dalton shares some tips and tricks to make sure that you are always on the radar of the recruitment and search specialists who can be most helpful to you. With extensive experience in executive search and corporate HR Dorothy has placed, coached and trained thousands of men and women to career success. As a career coach she has a deep understanding of the job search market and what job seekers need to do to position themselves to they are easily found.

As CEO of 3Plus she also has deep experience of the challenges women face in the workplace. Sadly because women tend not to create career strategies they can be vulnerable when it comes to dealing with change. Regular transitions become career crises. In this short session you will learn some simple tips and tricks to make sure you are on the radar of key recruitment specialists in your sector, geography or function.  It’s not rocket science.





One of the most puzzling things about working in executive search is that people and I say this reluctantly particularly women fail to plan ahead. You’ve heard me say before that only 5% of women have a career strategy. This means that they are not prepared for any emergencies until they become a crisis.


Goal setting tips to boost your career
Free Download

The happiest people are those that really love their jobs. Those that don’t, dread Sunday nights and the upcoming work week. So how do you get to a place where you look forward to a new week of doing what satisfies you? You’ll have to either learn to love your current role, or make a commitment to pursue your dream job. Use these goal setting tips to help you get to where you want to be.

Some women choose the latter, and to do so you’ll have to set career goals to get where you want to be. So make sure you have a detailed plan on how to land a job that you will tick all the boxes.

The majority of women choose to stay in their own organizations and even then you still need to have goals, not just KPis set by your manager. But even if you do see your career developing within your current business it’s still important to set goals.

Many women struggle with career planning and creating a career strategy which can lead to problems. This makes them vulnerable to and sort of challenge which can moprh into a full blown career crisis. Some simple steps to plan and prepare can help avoid this.

Take a look at these goal setting tips to help boost your career and set you on the right path.

Lewis Carroll  said

If you don’t know where you are going any road will get you there.”

Research shows that only about 5% of women create career goals and a career strategy. This can have a negative impact on your career progression. It means you are reactive not proactive and career glitches can morph into full blown crises. It puts women at a clear disadvantage to men.

Learn these simple goal setting tips to boost your career and protect and prepare you for all eventualities. If these goal setting tips make you think that you could use some further help,  contact us immediately.


When Does Female Rivalry Turn into Sabotage
Free Download

There’s a lot of stuff written on social media about  female rivalry and competition between women. Some of it makes sense and some of it is confusing. Organizations are pyramids with fewer roles at the top than at the bottom. It is inevitable that at some level, as more and more women are in the talent pipeline, at some point they will be in competition with other women.

Many would say that women aren’t competitive. I would suggest re-framing that. I think it’s more accurate to say they are not as competitive in the workplace as men. We have also been made to feel guilty about being competitive. We need to get over that.  Here are the reasons:

  1. The male nature of corporate culture makes it a disincentive to compete
  2. Women don’t want to compete because  prescribed male goals are not attractive enough for them. “Work 14 hour days, not see my partner or family … get sick.. thanks.. I’ll pass”
  3. Women don’t know how to compete in the workplace. They are new arrivals on the corporate competition scene and lack practise.
  4. Women experience gender blow back when they do compete, from both men and women
  5. Women have been raised to think that competing with other women is not empowering them. As more women enter the talent pipeline that is just nonsense.

Learn some insights from Annabel Kaye, Employment Law Expert about how it’s OK to be competitive and the danger zone when it can turn into sabotage. Understand the benefits of mutual support and how all women can profit from having strong strategic allies, role models and mentors.