The impact of invisible work on relationships and sanity

by Oct 4, 2017

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 acknowledgment 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.

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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.

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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.

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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