There's an app for that
Fairshare's quest to close the chores gap
Believe it or not, there’s a small cottage industry of entrepreneurs developing tech-based solutions to the problems we regularly discuss in this newsletter. I’m skeptical that it’ll be an app that finally convinces us to value unpaid labor or close the gender gap in household labor time.
But! That doesn’t mean there isn’t potential for tech-based solutions to do a lot of good while we’re working on the whole structural change thing. So long as they are part of a portfolio of efforts to reduce gender inequality—rather than positioned as the ultimate solution—I’m willing to entertain even the tech-iest of ideas.
As you’ll see in the interview below, my friend Rachel Drapper has a similar mindset. Rachel is finishing up her MBA and launching a venture called Fairshare, which aims to help couples recognize and reduce gaps between their ideal and actual division of labor. We connected because she’s committed to designing a research-backed product, and we’ve stayed in touch because she’s a thoughtful interlocutor who shares many of my passions. (Plus, there’s something really satisfying about offering advice and suggestions without any responsibility for implementing them!)
When I learned that Rachel is recruiting beta testers for her new initiative, I of course thought of all of you. We spoke recently about her background and her vision for Fairshare – both where it might go and what its limits are likely to be. If you like what you read, you can learn more and connect with Rachel via fairsharehome.org.
Allison: Just to orient people, tell me in a nutshell about your motivation for starting Fairshare.
Rachel: How far back should we go? I guess I’ll start with the big picture of why I’m passionate about gender equity. Oxford [her undergraduate university] wasn’t great in some ways, but at least it felt equal in many respects from a gender point of view. And then I remember going into the workforce and being really surprised by how few women were in strategy consulting, even at a junior level. I specialized in the automotive sector, and when we went to client sites in particular, women just dropped off the radar. It became a very regular occurrence for me to be in the minority as a woman in the business settings I was in.
Later, I went to a talk about a new shared parental leave policy that was introduced in the UK in 2015. I remember thinking, “This is a silver bullet, this is going to solve all the problems I’m seeing.” But now we’re 6 years after the implementation, and fewer than 4% of couples who are eligible take this policy up.
On the home side, my parents are separated, and I think that’s where I really saw firsthand the limitations of traditional gender roles in the home, and the negative consequences of intense specialization by gender. And now I’ve watched my older sister become a new mom, and I’m seeing history repeat itself a little bit. My sister took a year off [after giving birth], and my brother-in-law took a month off.* Now they’re trying to pursue an equitable model, where they’re each doing four days of paid work. But I’m curious about how easy it will be to rebalance, after a year of playing quite different roles in the family.
Finally, I’m bisexual and have been in relationships with women, and gender roles are not a thing so much in same-sex relationships. So then with my wonderful (male) partner now, when we fell into gender roles in the home, as a passionate feminist I was surprised that even I was susceptible to these kinds of gender norms.
Overall, all of these professional and personal experiences have linked together and started to paint a picture of why things aren’t as equal as I once thought they were and hoped they would be.
Allison: That resonates. I feel like our generation grew up thinking that a lot of the work was done and then got to the workforce and said, “Wait, this is not what I was promised!”
Rachel: Yeah, I think that’s definitely it. I thought this fight was fought, and we were there. It was entering the workforce when I realized it. But I have become increasingly convinced that the least changed bit is the home. And so I see that as the biggest constraint. It’s why I think we’re not able to achieve gender equality very well in the workplace, even though people have been trying for ages. Progress is being really limited by other factors in the system.
Allison: You’ve talked about a number of broader problems under this umbrella issue of gender equality. How do you position yourself within this? Which ones are you most interested in solving?
Rachel: A very reasonable question! Over the past few years I’ve changed my perspective on where I would like to work. My initial plan was to work my way up in the transport industry, become a female role model in transport, and have a prominent position where I had the platform to implement gender equity policies. But I had an opportunity to test this theory by working on a dream project at the intersection of transport and gender equity, and sadly the project died because it didn’t have the senior sponsorship needed.
So I kind of had a window into what the next 30 years would be like. It would be constantly frustrating, and I don’t know when would be the day when I could say, “Okay, I’ve made it, now I’ll do the things I care about.”
So I’ve pivoted to basically working fulltime on gender equity. What I’d really like to eventually do is change the UK’s parental leave policy. I think that’s the place where there’s the most leverage in the system.
Allison: I know you’re in the early stages with Fairshare, but can you tell me what the concept behind it is?
Rachel: It’s a tool to help couples track and time chores, with the hope that invisible, unpaid labor will become more visible, so couples can make more intentional choices about who does what in the home. And hopefully—this is a bit out there—it will improve relationship satisfaction, because chores are quite a divisive topic.
Allison: I know early-stage startups are famous for pivoting multiple times, but if you had to guess, where do you think Fairshare is headed in the next year?
Rachel: I guess in a year’s time, I would love to have a product that is helpful to people, one that covers both physical tasks and the mental load, and is something that adds value, that people find useful in their lives. I think if we could build that product in a year, and have people using it, that would be really good.
Allison: I’m sure there a million different challenges in starting a venture like that, but are there one or two that you think might be interesting for readers to hear about?
Rachel: In speaking to couples, I ask them whether they identify their values as traditional or egalitarian. And I’m already starting to notice a pattern, where couples who identify as having traditional values are less unsatisfied with an unequal split. Whereas couples who identify as having egalitarian values, if things are not equal, they’re less content. And that figures, right, if you’re not aspiring for it to be equal, you wouldn’t be unhappy if it’s not equal.
We’re trying to think through where this intervention is going to be useful. We’re thinking about it in two axes: 1) awareness of this as a problem, and 2) how much people care about this as a problem. So there are people who are aware of the problem and want to solve it, but don’t have the tools or aren’t sure how to do it. That’s who we think Fairshare could be a useful intervention for. But we also think it could be useful for people who at present aren’t aspiring to share things equally, where there’s not awareness of the implications of splitting things unequally. But that would require a very different solution.
It’s a two-pronged approach. The big picture is we want to inspire egalitarian intentions, because we feel that’s important. There’s limited awareness of the downsides of unequal labor splitting, which predominantly affect women. But then this is also an intervention to say, well, even for those with egalitarian goals, it’s very difficult to meet them, because chores are so nebulous. There are all these other things to factor in, like standards and different expectations and other things that make it even harder to just split things equally even if you want to.
Allison: I’m interested in how you think about what an app or a technology-based solution can and can’t do, or what else you think will be needed.
Rachel: That’s something I think about a lot. Because the impact I would love to have is definitely not going to be achieved with a single technical tool used by individuals in their households. But that said, for those who have the goals but are not able to meet them, this feels like a quick win. And I feel like if there’s no tool to measure the problem, how could we ever know where we’re at and then change it? So I guess I was thinking, let’s introduce a way to do an audit of where things are at the moment, as a first step to making changes.
[To solve the bigger problem,] it would need to be a part of a much broader campaign involving loads of stakeholders and organizations. If I could in any way contribute to a bigger movement, or help orchestrate it, that would be really cool.
Allison: I think that’s right, you can’t fix something you can’t see. And in a lot of popular discourse, there’s a real negativity toward “individual” solutions. I feel conflicted about it. On the one hand, I’m like, yes, the system is broken. We can’t expect individuals to fix it themselves. But if you are that individual who is struggling, we should try to provide tools. So yeah, I feel that tension.
Rachel: It’s not a one-year thing, but if we extended the time horizon for Fairshare, it could be part of a suite of offerings. Every couple has chores to do. It’s so universal, yet so under-discussed, that you could add huge value to people’s lives and relationships by just giving them some shortcuts and tools to avoid stereotypes and biases and patterns that people would otherwise not choose to get into.
Allison: And what is your call-to-action for readers of The Daminger Dispatch? What would be most helpful for you at this stage?
Rachel: I think it would be getting more beta testers. Readers can visit our website, fairsharehome.org, and sign up to participate in trials of Fairshare’s working prototype.
Allison: It sounds like a good opportunity for people to get in on the ground floor and really shape the direction you take!
Thanks for your patience as I’ve been off my normal writing cadence of late. It turns out to be a bad idea to try to defend your dissertation, find a job, and plan a wedding simultaneously - thankfully I crossed the first item of the list this week, so I’m hoping life will get marginally calmer…
* Note that Rachel is British, and a one-year maternity leave is not out of the norm in much of Europe!