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Faculty burdened with housekeeping

New study says professors trade off teaching for chores

Wash the clothes, or profile the chemical compositions of the bacteria they contain?

That is a choice that history Prof. Londa Schiebinger, director of the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford, hopes that women will no longer have to make.

Based a survey at elite universities across the country, Schiebinger found that while female professors work the same long hours as male professors, they still end up taking on a far greater burden of housework. Up to ten hours per week slip away down the drain or get melted over the stove – hours, Schiebinger believes, that could be better spent by women fulfilling their years of training and education.

“Women do a lot of invisible work in society, for free, at a cost to themselves,” Schiebinger said.

Schiebinger’s report, published recently in Academe, argues that this invisible work harms universities by putting an extra burden on professors that might prevent them from serving at their full potential.

“Institutions need to think of housework benefits as part of the structural cost of doing business,” she wrote. “With lab costs running into the millions of dollars, supporting the human resource involved – scientists’ ability to be more productive – takes full advantage of investments in space and equipment.”

Schiebinger argues that the costs of her suggestions would, if treated as a part of employee benefits, prove beneficial to workers, while allowing professors to increase their productivity.

“I don’t want this to be just about women,” Schiebinger added. “Men and women who are trained to do science can do science and men and women who are trained to do housework, can do housework. The profession shouldn’t be closed to either gender.”

In the sciences specifically, which suffer a low retention rate for women with children, even the most qualified of women can find the balancing act of work and home too daunting.

“I think it makes a lot of sense for universities and other employers to help their employees with the proverbial juggling act,” said English Prof. Shelley Fishkin, who has twice been a visiting scholar at Stanford’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender. “Providing this assistance could be an excellent recruiting tool.”

Understanding of the current economic climate, Schiebinger has no instant expectations, but she does find her suggestions in line with historical momentum. She cites childcare, for example, as a practice that thirty years ago rarely existed outside the home. Now, many offices and universities offer organized childcare for their employees, so their employees can focus on their work without worrying about home life.

“We’ve had a process of taking things out of the home and professionalizing them,” she said. “I think that Americans are always responding to the short term, and we need to do some long term thinking. Something needs to happen to change this situation.”

Within twenty years, Schiebinger believes, university-sponsored house care will take its place along with day care as a common perk of academic careers, for men and women, married and single.

Her ideas already connect with some emerging social trends. In Sweden, some Swedish companies already provide housework benefits, and the Swedish government is currently experimenting with tax relief on housecleaning services.

On National No Housework Day in early April, the Clayman Institute will hold a meeting with Stanford administrators, open to the public, discussing their policy suggestions.

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