Anytime I give a media interview about my research—heck, anytime I mention it at a backyard BBQ—the conversation always comes around to solutions. Yeah, yeah, women do more cognitive labor. What do we do about it? What can I do about it?
This is not my favorite line of questioning. Homo academicus is a creature of caveats, dispassionate observation, and nuanced analysis. She is not built for the soundbite, the quick fix, or the emphatic pronouncement. (Exceptions to this rule usually make it to cable TV eventually, which may lead casual viewers to overestimate their prevalence.)
I imagine this tendency to qualify every statement and avoid straying too far from what The Data tell us drives journalists a little crazy. The internet is powered by bold pronouncements, not hedges and caveats!
But consider it from the academic’s perspective. Day in and day out, we are steeped in complexity and nuance. We spend our days parsing details, adding one brick at a time to the wall that is human knowledge. We know too much to believe the complexity of the social world can be reduced to simple prescriptions.
And yet. I, like many other sociologists, got into this business because I saw problems in the world and wanted to do something about them. Early in my career I channeled this impulse into direct service work for a nonprofit, but I quickly realized that my chief skills (reading, writing, analyzing data) were not the most helpful for this line of work.
I’ve since decided that conducting research on issues with clear social import is my sweet spot. I get to do work I love and, in the long run, that work shapes the policies that get made, the way money flows, and how our cultural conversations unfold.
That’s the theory, anyway. In the meantime, what do I do with the eager reporter on the other end of the line, or the frazzled mom looking expectantly at me across a picnic table? I’m not the kind of academic who believes any hint of an opinion or practical implication inevitably taints my scientific objectivity. It would be disingenuous to claim that I see gender inequality as a neutral phenomenon. But I’m not really the CNN pundit kind either.
Instead, I prefer to occupy a middle ground comprised of heavily qualified suggestions, including the one in today’s newsletter. If you, dear reader, are frustrated with your division of labor but can’t put your finger on exactly why, this one’s for you. Or, if you know exactly what the problem is and are just trying to get your partner to see the light—read on.
Caveat emptor (I warned you!): I am an expert on how different-gender couples divide cognitive labor, but I am not an expert on what to do about it. The suggestion below is directly inspired by my research, but I have not studied its effectiveness. But if you try it out, I’d love to hear how it goes!
The Cognitive Labor Log
Cognitive work is often described as a form of “invisible labor:” it’s hard to recognize, because it happens inside our heads or behind the scenes and/or doesn’t fit our usual definition of work.
This invisibility is problematic for at least two reasons:
It makes it hard for your partner to see the work you’re contributing, which means they might not appreciate it or might not realize how big your workload is compared to theirs.
It makes it hard for YOU to see the work you’re contributing, which means you might not understand why you’re so tired all the time or how imbalanced your partnership has gotten.
Before you can change anything about your division of labor, you have to be able to see it. One way to do this is list out all of the things you are responsible for and compare them to all of the things your partner is responsible for. If that appeals to you, go for it! But I’ve found that it’s hard for people to think of these invisible tasks in the abstract. Instead, I recommend keeping a real-time cognitive labor log.
Participants in my research study did a version of this exercise. I asked each of them to keep a decision diary1 over the 24 hours or so before we met for an interview. This “diary” was really a simple spreadsheet where they wrote down all the decisions they made or contemplated making for their family. A typical log included entries like “decided what to feed the toddler for breakfast” and “decided whether to cook dinner or get takeout” and “thought about what to get my niece for her birthday.”
What’s the point of this exercise, for those of you who aren’t carrying out an academic study? In short, you come away with a LOT of data. When you review your log—and especially when you compare your log to your partner’s—patterns will emerge. You may find that your log is way longer than your partner’s, for instance. Or that one person’s log contains no entries between 9am and 6pm, whereas the other is thinking about the household throughout her workday. You may be surprised to learn what’s occupying your partner’s brain space: perhaps you didn’t realize he spent 90 minutes researching hotel options, or that she has already started brainstorming holiday gifts.
If I’ve piqued your interest, here’s a step-by-step guide to trying it out:
Get your partner on board. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s important that they buy in. Otherwise, it’s easy for them to claim after the fact that they didn’t really log ALL their decisions, and so the gap is smaller in reality than it looks on paper.2
Decide on a timeframe. Start with one day, if enthusiasm is low, or pick one weekday and one weekend day if your partner is amenable. Ideally you will both log on the same day(s).
Track your decisions for the specified period. Remember that you want to count the decisions you make and the stuff that might become a decision sometime down the line. Things like researching options, noticing an issue you’ll need to address, or even following up on a decision that was already made—all are fair game for this exercise. (Don’t worry, I’ve got a template with plenty of examples if this is sounding hazy.) It’s best if you update your log periodically throughout the day, rather than all at once at the end. Even if that means jotting little reminder notes down and fleshing them out later, you’d be surprised at how quickly you will forget what happened and what you were thinking about.
Sit down with your partner to review the logs. Try to stay neutral at first: work on noticing and observing rather than diagnosing problems. What is surprising or unexpected? Are there any obvious differences in the amount or kind of decisions each of you recorded?
Once you’ve digested the facts, move toward (kind, constructive) assessment mode. Ask yourself whether these logs reflect your ideal division of cognitive labor, or if there are any imbalances you’d like to address. Try to get specific here. Does it bother you that one person is doing all the anticipating and noticing, while the other only jumps in when it’s time to make a decision? Does one person take point on an area of life you’d rather share equally? Is nothing wrong, per se, but one partner feels like their invisible work is going unrecognized by the other?
Solve for any problems you identified. Ha! If only it were that easy. I’ll be back in your inbox in a few weeks with some concrete suggestions for this particular challenge, but in the meantime, start by brainstorming ways to bring your reality closer to your ideal. Can you offload responsibility for domain X from one partner to the other? Is there a system you could adopt that would make task Y easier?
I’ve created a template in Google docs that you’re welcome to copy and modify if you’d like to try this exercise out. When you open the template, simply click File > Make a copy, and you’ll have your own version to edit and fill in.
If you try it, let me know how it goes! Constructive feedback is always welcome.
For your consideration:
I’ve had a string of great reads over the past month, all literary fiction juicy enough to keep the pages turning but smart enough to keep me from feeling guilty after the second hour on the couch. If you’ve got a vacation coming up, check out Olympus, Texas; One Two Three; or The Unseen World. (Warning: this last one is a tear-jerker, but so worth it!)
I focused on decisions in my explanation to participants because I figured that would be the most intuitive cognitive labor component for them to track.
Strategies for getting buy-in will be idiosyncratic to your partner. I find this (super-non-scientific!) framework helpful for thinking about what motivates people. For instance, my partner is a Questioner, which means the best way to get him bought in would be to explain exactly why this exercise is important, and why this is the best way to achieve a particular objective.