Labor & Work-Life Issues

Time Crunch for Female Scientists: They Do More Housework Than Men

January 19, 2010

When the biologist Carol W. Greider received a call from Stockholm last fall telling her she had won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, she wasn't working in her lab at the Johns Hopkins University. The professor of molecular biology and genetics was at home, folding laundry.

Ms. Greider does many of the household chores, but she isn't alone. A number of her female colleagues also do more around the house than their male partners.

"It is not just housework. For women with kids, it is all the other stuff: scheduling sports and play dates, play dates, remembering all of the calendar events for the whole family," said Ms. Greider, who has two school-age children.

A new study from the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University has found that female scientists do 54 percent of their core household tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry—about twice as much as their male counterparts. (Paid help and children made up some of the difference.) The results reinforce the findings of other studies. Most important, they indicate that women often have more obligations at home and lower retention rates in their fields.

A study published in the latest issue of Academe, "Housework Is an Academic Issue," found that women's academic rank had little impact on their household-chore percentage; senior and junior faculty members put in similar hours. Women also worked at their paying jobs about 56 hours a week, almost the same number of hours as men do.

Men contributed more to home repair, finance, and yard and car care. But those tasks took about one-quarter of the 19.3 hours a week spent in a home on core household tasks, according to the study.

Less Time for Academic Work

Jennifer Sheridan, executive and research director of the Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said many women in the work force—not just scientists—do a disproportionate amount of housework. But because a successful scientific career demands more than 40 hours a week, she said, female scientists could be especially affected.

Ms. Sheridan also said that more housework doesn't affect the quality of work but its quantity, which could make a difference in academe.

"Some studies of faculty productivity have found that women faculty may produce fewer articles, but the ones they do produce tend to be cited more frequently," Ms. Sheridan said. "But in an academic institution where the number of your publications or grants is the thing that is most highly valued, that is a problem."

Scientific groups are especially concerned about retention after the postdoctoral period. According to a report published last year by the National Academies, women made up 18 percent of the applicants for tenure-track positions in chemistry at Research I institutions between 1999 and 2003, although women earned 32 percent of the Ph.D.'s in chemistry. In biology, women made up 24 percent of the applicants for tenure-track positions, although they earned 45 percent of the Ph.D.'s.

Lorraine Tracey, vice chair of the National Postdoctoral Association's 2010 Board of Directors, said the challenge of raising a family and trying to work 60 or more hours a week doesn't appeal to many women. The National Postdoctoral Association has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to look at how to retain female postdoctoral students in academe and help get them to tenure-track positions.

Ms. Tracey, who is also a postdoctoral research associate at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, said additional personal responsibilities could add up over time for younger female scientists.

"If you have five hours a week less than your male counterparts available for your research over the five- to 10-year period of your graduate and postdoctoral training, this certainly adds up to a significant amount of time that I imagine could impact your competitiveness in the marketplace," she said.

Help With the Housework

One possible solution could be for universities to create more-flexible benefits packages that allow men and women to hire household labor. Londa Schiebinger, one of the study's two authors, said such cafeteria-style benefits would let employees figure out what sort of help they needed on an individual basis.

"You have labs and you have offices and you have experiment equipment," said Ms. Schiebinger, who is director of the Clayman Institute and a professor of the history of science at Stanford. "Another thing that people need to succeed is a good work-life balance. I think supporting housework is a way universities can guard their investment in these young faculty members."

American employers generally do not provide benefits to assist with housework, although some companies in other countries do, the study found. For example, Sony Ericsson in Sweden pays for housecleaning from some service providers, and the Swedish government is looking at tax relief for domestic services.

The recent economic downturn might mean that now is not a good time for universities to consider expanding employee benefits, Ms. Schiebinger said, but the study looked at long-term solutions and long-term problems.

Ms. Sheridan said a flexible-benefits plan is an interesting idea, although academe must also deal with deeper cultural issues. For example, she said, some female scientists come from cultures where hiring outside household help is taboo.

"So, this policy idea isn't a miracle cure-all to deal with this problem," Ms. Sheridan said. "A cultural shift is also needed, and that's far more difficult to achieve."