In Support of Unpaid Work


Editor says: note the author’s name.

From The Atlantic:

Unless things change, girls today will spend hundreds of thousands more hours than boys doing unpaid work simply because society assumes it’s their responsibility,” [Melinda Gates] writes in the letter, which is written for a teenage audience.

The article is cluttered with numbers about how women, even in so-called advanced societies like Finland, are burdened with the drudgery of housework. This type of analysis has been around for decades, and women’s magazines in the era of liberation were replete with conjectures of the astronomical amounts a stay-at-home mom would earn if she were paid for all the cleaning, chauffeuring, nursing, etc. she performed on a daily basis. Or the magazines would have fun with the analogy of mothers as domestic engineers or household CEO’s. Which is amusing, but really doesn’t fly on the old resume.

The fact is that there is women’s work, and the reason why there is women’s work is because men do it wrong. Just ask any man who has tried to help his wife or mother. He will do it, but he will fumble, and the plates will be stacked wrong, or the silverware will mysteriously find new homes, or butterfingers will chip the china or shatter the glassware. The cynic would say that he does it on purpose, to avoid being called on to help in the future. Maybe it’s true, and the average man is just too clever for his own good. But it could also be true that he is an untrainable dolt.

I am not completely convinced that the studies like the one Mrs. Gates chooses to cite take into account the breadth of what is commonly known as “men’s work.” Men’s work is mostly outdoor work. Cars need fixing, windows need washing, paint needs scraping, screens have to be put in or taken out. An imaginative man can keep busy with little chores that will satisfactorily fill up evenings and weekends. Just because he’s not running the vacuum doesn’t mean that he is not contributing to the cleanliness, safety, and comfort of the home environment.

When I clean the house, wash the dishes, and do the laundry, I get to live in a clean house, eat from sparkling dishes, wear fresh clothes, and sleep on immaculate sheets. When I cook a meal, whether it takes me 20 minutes or 2 hours, I get to enjoy the wonderful food that I prepare with my own two hands. I directly benefit from my labors. No one is doing it for me, and I can have the satisfaction of a job well done. That others—and possibly men—may benefit from my hard work is incidental.

The other part of the equation that never quite gets calculated properly is the joy and satisfaction one can get from unpaid work—whether making a quilt, mending clothing, replacing a lost button, or ironing the shirts. It is possible to buy quilts or have the dry cleaners do the mending, sew on buttons and take care of the shirts. Even though the actual work is outsourced, it takes time and energy to haul things to the cleaners and carry purchased goods from the store.

Personally, it would frustrate me to be obligated to pay someone to rummage through my things, paw through my drawers, and prepare meals that very well could taste like sawdust in my mouth. What is the going rate for home assistance? I don’t think I could afford it, especially at the Governor Cuomo-endorsed rate of $15 an hour.

My wages would have to rise considerably for me to enjoy my current standard living if I were to abandon all unpaid work. On the bright side, I could spend my increasing number of leisure hours at the office. Talk about drudgery.

What is surprising is that there isn’t public consternation about the hours and hours that women spend at the office, caged in a cubicle, tethered to a desk, under poor lighting, with their eyes riveted to Excel spreadsheets. Many of these women have expensive educations, and sometimes more than one degree, and this is their reward?

I’m not sniffing at earning a paycheck, and sometimes, it has to be done. But, there is unsung and uncelebrated satisfaction in doing work that is marginalized, undervalued, and yes, unpaid.


  1. Briggs

    Mea culpa. It was I who stacked the plates incorrectly.

  2. PKH

    Hundreds of thousand hours MORE than men work? That’s at least 8 hours a day every day for 68 years.

  3. Gary

    Besides the quality (as determined by women) of men’s housework, there’s the ROI factor. From personal experience (the best kind) I sacrifice quality for time and will accept 80% return on 20% effort. Grocery shopping is my example. Occasionally, on my own I get the wrong item (brand, size, flavor, etc.), but I’m outta there in minimal time. When wife and I shop together I’m in agony, wandering and inefficiently re-wandering the same isles, comparing unit prices, checking ingredients labeling. My feet hurt, my back hurts, my head hurts. And this is when we have a list! Leave me in the car where I can listen to the radio and catch a nap. I doubt my experience is unique.

  4. Well, another reason to despise and abhor the Gates clan. This is what happens when the only thing that matters in life is MONEY and all value of human beings is how much MONEY they are worth. Soul-less individuals, wrapped up in hundred dollar bills.

    Easy solution: No one does housework, we eat raw food and live in filth. Self-correcting in no time at all.

    It’s called division of labor. It’s best done by whomever can do it best, which does tend to go along gender lines. However, my household consists of a guy that cooks and does laundry, while I rebuilt the bathroom wall so a larger furnace would fit. I love mowing the lawn. We can exchange duties, of course, now that I did finally learn to cook!

    Gary: My sympathies to you! I used to kind of like grocery shopping and other shopping but now I really hate it. Using the internet to check prices before shopping has helped—I know what good prices are ahead of time. I get as much stuff as I can online so I am not subjected to shopping. My hubby has become very adept at taking a list and getting out in no time also. He’s also very good at sitting in the car reading while I shop if need be.

  5. Gary

    Sheri, thanks for your sympathies. Lest there be some unwarranted assumptions, wife is balanced with other household chores and not too picky.

  6. Scotian

    The world is full of unpaid labour that used to be compensated. We have to operate our own elevators, open our own doors (no doorman or washroom attendants), and no bus conductors separate from drivers to conduct us to our seats. We have to pick up our own groceries, place them in carts, and load our own cars. In fact the choice now exists to scan the items ourselves in automatic teller machines. Self serve is all the rage but there used to be people to do these things for us. Rich people now have to dress themselves putting legions of valets out of work. The government demands that we fill out income tax forms and all without compensation. Also what happened to the theatre ushers? You mean I have to find my own seat?

    It is a failure of simple economics not to realize that paid labour is defined as doing what someone else is willing to pay you for at the wage agreed upon. Work does not in itself create wealth.

    Oh yes, self serve gas stations where I have to pump my own gas, clean my own windshield, check my own oil, other fluids, and tire pressure. My compensation is presumably cheaper gas. The minimum wage laws are part of the reason why I might not wish to pay for these services. I must mention that there are still people who will hire a maid service to clean house for them. A friend of ours makes a living doing just that. It is all a matter of what it is worth to you the individual.

  7. Ray

    The fact is that there women’s work, and the reason why there women’s work is because men do it wrong.

    Dr. Briggs enemies strike again.

  8. Briggs


    A man’s work is never done.

  9. Joy

    It’s true some women are luckier than others. Women who have the luxury to choose not to work are the richest in reward and often in treasure.
    Those women who have to work, are the poorest the gates article seems to be drawing attention to what is known and what will never change. Forget the bar charts.

    If a woman or anyone can find enjoyment let alone fulfilment in gainful employment it is rare. Generally the reward is in the paycheque. Just as people under value unpaid work they undervalue poorly paid or “lowly” jobs whichever sex does it.

    There are women who could well afford to stay at home and who choose to leave their children in the care of strangers, or Grandparents, in order to keep themselves and their husbands in the manner to which they have become accustomed. I disapprove of this but this group is quite a large proportion of the population, probably more than half, a wild guess.

    If image is so important, and I blame sighted people for this, people are under social pressure to “appear” all things “Hello” magazine or perhaps “woman’s own” depending upon your magazine of choice. The point remains the same. What I’m saying probably always happened but it is magnified and social media brings us back to the playground when the latest fashion or trend mattered more than anything else. (spellcheck wants playgroup!)

    As for men being rubbish at washing up, housework etc, some men are some men are too meticulous and feel the need to turn the exercise into an engineering project or full blown military operation, some men will talk about how they washed up and give themselves 10/10 proving that women have it easy…on and on, they all have the effect, if not intended, of making the woman with elbows, force the offending male to the side.. The tricks are not just in the domestic setting but in the workplace. The boys are blamed for being the ones who didn’t wash their mug, then, who didn’t fill the dishwasher properly? “I didn’t!”

    Some men are good at everything they turn their hand to and do it without a fuss or a comment.
    My judgement would be that the more proud a man is, the less interested he is in washing up or mere manual work.
    The negative value placed on housework comes from men originally, I am afraid, and women trying to be like men have adopted the male mentality when it comes to housework.

    Housework, or other unpaid work, are a fact of life, you don’t have to like it.

    “Enjoy the summer innocently while it lasts,
    Treat your master well if you happen to be a servant,
    treat your servant well if providence has made you a meter,
    Be thankful to heaven for the blessings of health strength and freedom,
    and remember that a gardeners work is never done.”
    The shilling Kitchen Garden 1859

  10. Joy

    …'”if providence has made you a master’, sorry.

  11. Paul W

    Interesting that progressives and equalists place such a high value on donating time to charities and causes they think progress society but somehow it’s all wrong when it’s time donated to improve the life on their children and husband. Maybe they could put together a chart or graph so we know when unpaid work is exploitation and when it’s for the greater good.

  12. Adrienne S

    I take care of all the indoor AND outdoor chores. Not that they all get done in a timely fashion if at all, but if I don’t do it, they wouldn’t get done.

  13. It really is permanently the 1950’s in you cons minds, huh?

    I’m sure many spouses would be delighted to be able to stay home and raise the kids, take care of the home, etc, but the jobs that once sustained a strong middle class that could enjoy that lifestyle are gone.


  14. From the banner I thought this was about WMB and the climate models.
    You are right about the silverware. My wife likes t stacked a particular way (which changes). I like getting it in the correct little bin.

  15. Ye Olde Statistician

    when the only thing that matters in life is MONEY and all value of human beings is how much MONEY they are worth.

    And all value of women is how well they imitate men.

    It really is permanently the 1950’s in you cons minds, huh?

    You mean that decade of prosperity? If only.

  16. Gary

    JMJ, you don’t care for the 50s? Lot less pollution (of all kinds) back then.

  17. JMJ: We wish it was. Sadly, the Left has effectively removed that option and replaced it with unwed mothers, welfare, race riots and “equality”, not to mention whiney crybaby college students who need group therapy if a conserative name is even mentioned. As for spouses staying home, it can be done and quite easily. It depends on one’s priorities. On the other hand, having strangers raise your kids does allow for more government indoctrination. As Paul Harvey said, “Not all that we call progress, is.”

    YOS: Good answer to JMJ!
    Agreed that the value of women now is indeed how well they imitate men. I would add it’s also how well they ignore, demean and demonize men.

  18. JH

    Interesting. I read the letter (, and have a different take on what Ms. Gates’s main points are. She obviously doesn’t need my defense or criticism, but it seems that her benign, positive messages have been somehow twisted.

    A life of helping others. What can top that? I enjoy my job, but I think I could enjoy doing what Ms. Gates does with her life, too.

    “Folding laundry isn’t rewarding, unless you’re one of those obsessively neat people. (I’m not.) But caring for a child or a sick relative is deeply meaningful, and many people, Bill and me included, want to take time to concentrate on that part of life. Sharing the burdens of unpaid work also means sharing the joys. “

    “A couple of years ago, Melinda and our daughter Jennifer visited Tanzania and stayed with Anna, Sanare, and their children. It was an eye-opening experience. Poverty, Melinda learned, is not just about a lack of money. It’s about the absence of other resources, like time and energy, the poor need to realize their potential.”

  19. Gary in Erko

    Women notice when things around the house need to be done. Men usually don’t. Is that scientific evidence that housework is in some natural way, women’s work?

  20. Michael 2

    Gary in Erko writes “Women notice when things around the house need to be done.”

    Things do not have their own needs. People have needs and wishes. Whoever wishes the most to have things a certain way can either do it that way or try to compel friend, spouse, sibling, offspring, parent or total stranger to do it that way.

    In my case, I am willing to do things but I suffer “NTSP” — Never Twice Same Place. Where she wants it today isn’t where she wanted it yesterday. What color she wants it today isn’t what color she wanted yesterday. Finding anything is like a Quest for the Holy Grail, in the process burying today the things we are going to need tomorrow.

    Even that could be tolerable if she was more gracious about me putting something where it went yesterday but not today but there’s usually a lot of anger and contention.

    We have a lawn watering tractor that pulls itself and its hose along the ground. One week she was upset and questioning why I had it going from east to west. No particular reason, that’s just the way it worked out. So the next time I was careful to water from west to east since she seemed to prefer it that way. And yet it provoked the same response; angry questioning why was I going from west to east.

    There used to be a biological conditioning; males hunt and acquire, and then guard, territory. The house itself is tended and guarded by the female. It is certainly so with many animals and birds. Humans are somewhat more versatile but sometimes there’s a price to pay for going against nature, a growing dissatisfaction that may be difficult to comprehend.

  21. Peter A.

    “Men’s work”, “women’s work” – what a load of rubbish! Work is work, and being single myself means I have to do whatever it is that needs doing: like washing the dishes (I do that quite well), shopping, cooking…

    The “manly” things on the other hand (ex. mowing the lawn, fixing things around the house, fixing the car), I’m absolutely hopeless at, and need a lot of help with.

    A truly stupid article that does nothing but promote ludicrous, archaic notions from 60 years ago, based upon ridiculous societal expectations about what is apparently appropriate for someone to do based upon whether they are male or female.

  22. Michael2: I agree that the person with the strictest requirements is the one that does the chores. I have far less tolerance for dust due to allergies and was always the one cleaning when young. My hubby will vacuum, but needs to be reminded. I figure I’m the one who needs the clean, so I’m the one who does it. I”m also careful not to complain about how the cleaning is done. In our case, everything is where it’s been for the last decade, so I would find constant rearranging quite disturbing.

  23. Gary in Erko

    Michael2, a lawn watering tractor should be aligned such that the sun will equally evaporate the spray on its left and right sides. Use scientific rationalisation to get your own way.

  24. Sheri, you never had the option to go back in time. No one took that from you. Change is a fact of life. Accept it, or continue standing against the wind, shaking your fists in the air, demanding it all just go back to the way it was, for the impossible.


  25. Ye Olde Statistician

    Change is a fact of life. Accept it

    Generally said by those who approve of the change in questions. When the change is something of which they disapprove — say, bolstering the border — then they are agin’ it and shake their fists against the rising wind. Depends, I suppose on which way the wind is blowing.

  26. JMJ: Of course I didn’t have the option of going back in time—that’s a really dumb statement. If you mean I can’t go back to when people weren’t as selfish and stupid as they are now, then I agree. That’s something people have to be trained out of or nature has to slap the daylights out of them before they wake up again. However, to put it bluntly, your statement about resisting change is IDIOT. If things always change, then I can push to change to more rational government, less rights for the perverted and evil, changes that require parasites either to get a job or starve, less regulations, etc. Change can and should go backward if forward is over a cliff. Only an idiot would vote to keep going in the same direction and over a cliff. That’s what you’re trying to tell me. You’re also saying only the changes you want are changes and everything else is backward. You may favor driving off a cliff, but that’s seems insane to me. (Also, I have NOT demanded it go back to the way it was—that’s a strawman argument like if I claimed you always want everything from the past outlawed. You want your way, plain and simple. So try to avoid the scarecrow arguments, progressive or not.)

  27. Oh-as for Melissa Gates: The quote contained in JH’s answer appears to say slave labor, equally divided by household members, is okay within a family. If the wife does an ounce more, it’s wrong and unfair. That’s my interpretation of: “Sharing the burdens of unpaid work”

    It is interesting that raising your own children is mundane, thankless work but raising someone else’s children is a paid profession and worthy of praise.
    It is interesting that washing your own dishes, cooking, and scrubbing your own toilet is thankless slavery, but being paid to do so it is a great job and a valuable service.
    It is interesting that mowing your own lawn, fixing your own car, etc are thankless drudgery to be avoided, but the person paid to do so is a wonderful human being with much value.
    It IS about money, quite clearly.

    Melissa Gates seems to have forgotten that she is rich, privileged and no longer part of the real world. She can pay a nanny, a cook, a cleaning lady, a gardner, a pool boy. Sure, she’s increasing employment (and I’m sure she pays $15 an hour and benefits) but she has these employees doing what she is too good to do now. It’s a very, very clear message. Rich people are too good to do mundane chores, so everyone should be to good to do these chores for free or the rich look like complete jerks.

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