9 Barriers to cognitive labor equality
Plus, a new opportunity for readers
Believe it or not, one of the most hotly debated questions among interviewers is, “how many people do I need to talk to?” I’ll spare you the details of this internecine academic conflict and instead share one widespread answer: you talk to as many people as it takes to reach “saturation.” (No, not the kind you toggle before posting pics to the ‘gram…)
When you first embark on a research project, everything is new. Each additional interview introduces new hypotheses to test, puzzles to sort through, and ideas to mull. But there’s a point in every project – maybe after 10 interviews, maybe 50, maybe 150 – when the newness is gone. You can predict a respondent’s answers, because you’ve heard some version of them before. Bingo: saturation.
After conducting more than 140 “official” interviews about cognitive labor and speaking informally about the topic with hundreds more people, I consider myself oversaturated.1 In practice, this means that when I talk to people about their cognitive labor challenges, I am very rarely surprised. When someone tells me about their struggle, I scan my internal database and can usually slot my interlocutor into one or more categories.
And if I can’t immediately fit them into any of my existing mental models, I go into interviewer mode and keep digging until I find a match. (Apologies if you’ve been on the receiving end of such an interrogation!) On the rare occasions when my conversation partner continues to defy all my preconceived notions, I know it’s time to start plotting a new research project.
Most of the time, this process happens somewhat haphazardly. It’s not like I have a desktop file with a list of Top Ten Cognitive Labor Problems that I refer to. Recently, however, I decided that such a file might actually be kinda useful. What follows is very much work in progress, but I thought I’d share a first pass in the hope that some of you might find it helpful to know that you aren’t alone in your struggles.
This is as good a time as any to tell you I’m experimenting with a new offering. The one-to-many format of this newsletter makes it an excellent platform for translating social science research into concrete strategies relevant to many couples. As I’ve just said, there are problem archetypes that show up again and again.
But it’s also true that each individual and couple has a unique set of ancillary challenges, constraints, and opportunities. And there’s something special about the dynamism of a live conversation: I get to ask follow-up questions, throw out possible solutions, hear why those solutions would be impossible in your particular life, and revise from there.
If you’re interested in a one-on-one session with me where we do just that (a little bit of venting, a little bit of strategizing), you can put your name on the waitlist here. As the handymen who advertise in my neighborhood say, “No problem too big or too small!” Trying to get your spouse to take ownership of vacation planning? Convinced you need a complete cognitive labor overhaul? I’m game.
To be clear, signing up is not a commitment to participate; it’s just an indicator of interest so that I can share more info about the offering with you and don’t have to bug all the readers who come here for a newsletter, thank you very much.
Okay, interlude over. Without further ado, here is my working list of 9 Common Barriers to Cognitive Labor Equality2:
Lack of awareness: I see a problem, but my partner doesn’t. For instance…
My partner doesn’t see the full scope of what I do for our home/kids
My partner recognizes that I do a lot of the planning but thinks it’s not really work, it’s just me stressing myself out
My partner assumes I like things the way they are, but in fact I wish they were more equitable
Values mismatch: My partner thinks on some level that household labor should be unequal
Care differential: We’d like to share the load, but I just care a lot more about these issues or have higher standards than my partner does (e.g., I care about having a clean home when guests come over, and they don’t)
Skill differential: We’d like to share the load more equitably, but I’m just way better at most of these tasks than my partner is
Style clash: My partner and I are very different people - they’re more of a ‘fly by the seat of their pants’ type, and I like to have things planned in advance, so I tend to get to tasks first
Circumstantial constraints: We agree that something closer to equality would be better, but our circumstances (e.g., our work hours, who works from home, our kids’ ages, etc.) prevent us from getting there
Sexist society / systems: My partner and I are on the same page, but we face an uphill battle with our parents/friends/neighbors/kids’ teachers, who assume that one of us is more responsible for domestic matters than the other
Manager/Helper dilemma: My partner is involved but still looks to me as the ultimate authority. And/or, my partner wants to take on more, but I can’t fully let them because I’m afraid they won’t do it, or won’t do it well
Inertia: We both want to change but it feels too hard/tiring, and we are too locked into our existing patterns
Do you see yourself on this list? Even better, do you face a challenge not covered here? Please email or comment to tell me what I’ve missed - I would love nothing more than to learn something new.
Does this mean I have nothing new to learn? Far from it. In fact, I’m returning to the field this spring to conduct another set of interviews, this time with queer and same-sex couples. My “saturation” extends only as far as the population I’ve talked with in the most depth: highly-educated, different-sex couples in the U.S.
I thought about calling this “Common Perceived Barriers…” because these are all very focused at the level of the individual or couple. Longtime readers know, however, that I’m committed to putting individual-level issues into a broader social context. Though that context is largely missing from this list for the sake of brevity, don’t forget that the social and cultural are very much there in the background!