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...A Burden or a Rebellion?

Welcome to the first post in 2023. To enrich leadership amongst the average worker, I could start with effective communication or stress management techniques.

But am I??


We’ll get there, certainly. But, for now, I’d like to speak to someone specific. While brainstorming what I wanted the first podcast episode to be about, I had already been about a year deep into understanding unpaid labor, its relationship to our social structure and the people within it. The more I learned, the more made sense. So, while all the business classes will tell me to write for my ideal audience…that ideal audience today is...well... me. And any other person who relates to default thinking such as "always trying to do alone before asking for help." Or automatically assuming responsibility over shared household, childcare or workplace tasks; to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. Today, I want to talk to the unpaid laborer. As political pioneer, and first black woman elected to US Congress, Shirley Chisholm used to say, “organize the rage.”

But I do have a disclaimer. This may not resonate with you. In fact, this post may be completely un-relatable to you and that’s okay. Not everything is relatable to everyone. I recognize this is a very emotionally charged, niche topic for women, so if you don’t identify as, work with or love one, it may be difficult for you to relate…

…Were you paying attention? Do you see how that is somewhat of a trick statement? As we all probably work with or love a woman who may deeply relate to this topic; a topic that affects everyone.

As I study organizational and societal systems, two things become abundantly clear. :

1) No one actually knows what the fuck they’re doing. Everyone likes to pretend to have the answer: the spiritual, diet, or MBA secret to success; but they don’t. Everyone is just doing their best with what they’ve got, each stifled by their past programming and current lack of awareness.

2) Anyone, at any level, at any time, can lead. The key for number 2 is that awareness. Plus, a lot of humility.

Historically, I’ve been insufficient in both. Though working on my relationship to self, prioritizing what’s important to me, and understanding my environment has changed that. It’s given me the confidence to act, in hopes of cultivating the change I want to see. Therefore, we’re beginning here: broadening our awareness of how culture functions on unpaid labor, and how our current social structure depends on us never figuring that out.

Unpaid labor was my top researched topic last year. It’s the area that bridged my personal experience to life coaching, and now as a masters candidate in leadership, learning and organizational change. As I peeled back the proverbial onion, I made connections from home, to work, and to society. We will discuss all three.

As a former “gender-roled”, stay-at-home mother of two, I’ve often been infuriated by the unsolicited advice of “just ask for help”. Asking for help makes it clear whose list it’s actually on. Execution of the task is sometimes our least concern. Plus, if the buck stops with us, and we do it better and quicker alone, then what’s the benefit of asking for help? When we’ve shown Dale in the office, like 50 times, how to use an application and he “just can’t seem to get it”, or when we have to consistently follow up with the same people over and over; why would we continue to ask for help? It’s easier for us to do it alone. Though, to alleviate this pressure, we’re told to create “honey-do lists”, hire babysitters and full-time childcare, and schedule 1:1 career trajectory touch-bases with the boss. Contrasted with the ultra-independence that is so heavily valued in the great ‘ol U.S. of A. If we believe the work gets done better and quicker alone, and that independence is rewarded, is asking for help in the western world a burden…or is it an act of rebellion? Let’s get into it.

A 2008 study by the University of Michigan reports that “having a husband creates an extra seven hours a week of housework for women.” Which is pretty rude considering that women aged 15 and older already shoulder 37% more housework than men in the same age range. For every 1% increase of unpaid work, women lose 0.062% in weekly earnings; while unpaid labor as no effect on male wages. Now, I already told that women, on average, do 37% more domestic labor. But even when she’s working, she’s doing about 22% more (Hess et al., 2020).

So, let’s do some math, shall we?

For context, let’s say she makes $100K per year and does 22% more unpaid labor. That would equate to a loss of 1.4% in weekly earnings:

0.062% decrease in weekly earnings / 1% of unpaid labor x 22% of unpaid labor

= 1.4% lost weekly earnings

This equates to:

  • $27 per week

  • $1400/yr

Then let’s say she works from age 25-65: $1400/year x 40 years = a loss of $56K over her career. $56K that’s not compounding in an IRA, 401K or a 529 to help her pay for her kid’s college. For struggling wage earners, that impact is much more severe. In a 2020 New York Times article, unpaid labor was valued at $10.9 trillion, and to this day is not factored into the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), which measures the monetary value of goods and services. If it were, it’s estimated that it would be valued between 10-39%. Relatedly, the 2015 McKinsey & Co’s Global Institute Report estimates that narrowing the gender gap could add between $12 and $28 trillion to the global GDP. I don’t think I’ve ever said GDP that many times. To clarify, this is not a financial podcast, but I’ve linked my new favorite one in the show notes.

The popular “honey-do list” contains the bulleted tasks and chores that one person in the relationship creates for the other.

You know... delegating...

But, at home... a partnership...

where there’s supposed to be equality.

This laundry list of tasks, and yes pun-intended, include things like laundry, cleaning bathrooms, running errands and the like. But it leaves out two huge components of any project management:

  1. Conception

  2. Planning.

Examples: Are we out of soap? The dishwasher needs to be emptied. The kids need to bring popsicle sticks for art class tomorrow. The laundry needs to be switched over. I need to buy Nanna a birthday gift. The car needs an oil change. The dog needs a bath. So on, and so forth.

We’ll discuss this more in detail later. But for now, the tl;dr is that women assume the majority of the mental load and unpaid labor required to keep a household running. Which directly supports her partner in participating in work and pleasure outside the home. Eve Rodsky, creator of Fairplay, a system for equitable division of domestic labor, which I’ll describe later in the episode, calls the time you prioritize yourself your “unicorn space”.

There’s a societal expectation that a woman mustn’t take care of herself but be in full service to others. Kate Manne in her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny presents a concept called Human Giver Syndrome (Nagoski et al, 2020). Where feminine presenting persons, are expected to give their time, energy, love, attention, and bodies to others; without expecting a return on her investment. Since… forever, this has manifested in the “she-faulting” of unpaid domestic and childcare labor. And it’s bologna. A Lancet Public Health meta-analysis of 19 studies, covering over 70k people globally, found that the more unpaid labor women do, the worse their mental health. The same was not found for men.

Mia Birdsong, in her food for the soul book, “How We Show Up” sites a 2018 Cigna survey that found that 1:4 don’t have people who we feel understand us. Separately, in a Morning Consult survey they found that over half of adults (58%) are considered lonely. Aka – we aren’t meant to do life alone. And that includes isolating inside independence or a nuclear family without the support of your partner or a larger village.

Birdsong presents a compelling case for community within all our roles: partner, parent, and friend. Reminding us that queer and black communities have always subscribed to a village mindset, where familial support extends outside of blood and biology. She explains that valuing independence negatively impacts marginalized groups because without support, access, or money, very few of us could “do it all” and do it all alone for that matter. It’s for that reason that our system places value on independence because it’s a way of “othering”.

It’s also well-accepted within the psychology community that there’s a link between hyper-independence and trauma. For example, you may have learned to be overly independent because you find trusting others challenging. I question if this hyper-independence may have something to do with the 85% of women who experience some type of postpartum mood disorder. For most, these symptoms subside but for 10-15%, they develop more severe symptoms related to anxiety and depression.

Did you experience postpartum mood disturbances?

  • Yes

  • No

Mothers experience a loneliness that for many is hard to describe. You’re never physically alone but internally it can feel like a dark cavernous blackhole. Loneliness is often synonymous with depression, as it’s been researched time and time again that we are a social species, that require connection for survival. Infants are diagnosed with “failure to thrive” when their bodies physically stop growing due to a lack of physical and emotional connection. Our health depends on our relationship to others. So, if you’re feeling like you can’t do this alone, well…that’s because you weren’t meant to. As an old friend of mine used to say…

“I’m not built for this.” -strugglers everywhere

But when organizational and governmental family leave policy fall short, it leaves mothers physically, emotionally, and mentally alone; regardless of how aware we are of our need for communal support. FMLA (The Family Medical Leave Act) only protects your job while on leave, it does not pay you, and 40% of women don’t qualify. Which means, she’s at risk for losing her job. Only 12% of women in the private sector have access to paid maternity leave, so one would need to contribute to something like Short Term Disability, which pays a fraction of your salary during your leave. This may explain why 1:4 is forced back to work after only 2 weeks. And if you’ve ever been two weeks postpartum you know how unreasonable and unsafe that is (

Does your organization offer paid parental leave?

  • Yes, under 6 weeks

  • Yes, 6 to <12 weeks

  • Yes, 12+ weeks

  • No, I had to use PTO/Short Term Disability/Other

Businesses should be mindful of their contribution towards high-quality healthcare, as a recent HBR article cites, health disparities contributing to $93 billion in excess medical costs. The writers also share 2022 research by Deloitte’s Center for Health Solutions and Health Equity Institute that found “inequities in the U.S. health system cost approximately $320 billion annually, and if left unaddressed, could cost $1 trillion or more a year by 2040.” Organizations are encouraged to "crunch some numbers", it may justify the investment.

This in addition to the stereotyping and outright bullying that occurs from those back at the office. Take Jon Dileno, a lawyer from Zashin & Rich, an Ohio-based firm dedicated to workplace and family law. Who’s ironic and harassing text message to a colleague on maternity leave went viral this month. He called maternity leave “sitting on your ass” amongst naming her “soul-less and morally bankrupt.” It’s interesting how passionate he is about her paid maternity leave, and interviewing for another job, yet not one reflective question about why she may want to resign in the first place. If I were to take a guess, it would be the culture; but I’m simply speculating.

Shall we touch on paternity leave for good measure? I think so…

While 90% of dads take some time off after their child is born, the majority take less than 10 days (NYT). Although the benefits of such leave are pretty clear. Not only does it strengthen their partnership and allow their partner to get back into the paid workforce, but it also strengthens their bond with their child (DOL).

According to a 2020 McKinsey & Company survey, 100% of fathers who took leave said they would do it again, 90% noticed an improvement in their relationship with their partner, and 20% felt that a career setback was the main downside but believed the benefits outweighed that concern.

As of 2022, my home state of Maryland becomes the 10th state to provide paid Family Leave. The funds won’t be accessible until 2025 but the process has begun, with payroll tax beginning in October of this year. The program offers 12 weeks, annually, of paid time off to care for a child, one’s own or a family member’s medical needs. For the lowest income workers, this will replace 90% of weekly wages. For higher-income earners it will be capped out at $1000 per week (SHRM) .

The United States is the only high-income country to not offer paid parental leave on a federal level. So, let’s look at when leave was provided in an Canadian Province and the outcome. The Quebec Parental Leave Insurance Program (QPIP) set aside five weeks of non-transferable leave for fathers, and when it became available, there was a 250% increase in those who took leave. In addition, for those who took leave they spend 23% more time on domestic labor and their partner spent more time in the paid workforce (IWPR). And then we circle back to our original discussion…

As I previously mentioned, working women still performs 22% more unpaid labor than her man, which negatively affects her already lower salary. In addition, mothers are penalized by a “mommy tax” that docks her pay 7.5% with her first child and increases to 8% with subsequent children. She’s punished for requesting time off for domestic & caregiving responsibilities, resulting in less career advancement opportunities and lower overall lifetime pay. As if working more hours directly correlates with engagement, productivity, capability, or return on investment (ROI). It doesn’t. In fact, the opposite has shown to be true, and we’ll discuss that shortly.

LeanIn Org. and McKinsey & Co report that women leaders are 2 times as likely as male leaders to spend substantial time on Diversity, Education, and Inclusion (DEI) work, with 40% of women leaders saying their DEI work isn’t acknowledge on their performance reviews. Hello?! Is this not a perfect example of workplace unpaid labor.

Ella F. Washington, a Professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, and a Northwestern Kellogg alum, wrote a stellar article in the November ’22 edition of Harvard Business Review, covering the DEI stages a company moves through. As I read, the 5 stages mirrored the gender equality conversation at home so well. At the bottom is Stage One: Assess phase, where the organization (or family) is just becoming aware of its importance. Those that find themselves at this level are ones who’ve never prioritized this work before, or new organizations (or relationships) so narrowly focused on other things that they’ve neglected the topic. We work our way through the five stages until we reach Stage Five: Sustainability where efforts are embedded into the culture and can withstand stress such as a change in leadership, economic challenges, etc. I joked on IG stories the other day about how we could print certificates for under-functioning partners as they worked their way through these five stages. Like a company would provide certificates of completion to their employees.

“Congrats Steve, you’ve completed stage one of gender equality at home, where you’ve finally recognized the importance of your contribution outside of financial support or cutting the grass. We look forward to Stage Two: Compliance where you do just enough to get by.”

DEI is large scale, but what about the micro-aggressive ways time and energy are stolen in the workplace? It looks like this: “Hey can you find that file for me?”, “Can you schedule that meeting for us?”, “Could you take notes?”– “No, Chuck. I can’t.”

It also shows up by helping new employees navigate the organization, ensuring a new mom returning from maternity leave is acclimating well, and checking on individual teammate’s bandwidth, to name a few. Women do the majority of emotional labor at work and at home. From the Lancet Public Health meta-analysis I mentioned previously, we know it’s directly affecting her mental health. The burnout rate of women leaders stands at 43%, compared to 31% of men at the same level. This underscores the overall lack of support women and people of color receive in the workplace; also shown through an underrepresentation in leadership. While white men enjoy a steady average increase of 5.6%, with each promotional level, Black men, white women, and black women suffer a steady average decrease of 1.4%, 1.6% and 2.8% respectively. (Women in The Workplace Report 2022).

But, let me tell you, leaving women out of leadership is bad for your business, bro. The 2020 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report states that gender equality can have a significant impact on the future of an economy or society; meaning a gender gap negatively impacts a country’s power and influence. Same is true for a business. Inclusive teams make better decisions up to 87% of the time, move through decision making 2x faster, with ½ the meetings, and deliver 60% better results (Forbes). Diverse leadership is strongly correlated with profitability and value creation; and those teams without, underperform their peers. In 2017, inequitable teams under profited by 27% (McKinsey & Co).

I would be remiss to discuss leadership disparities without drawing attention to the racial and income inequalities that make childcare inaccessible and unaffordable for a large portion of the country. If she’s not making enough money to hire childcare, she sure isn’t working her way up the corporate chain. Personally, I am a privileged, white, college-educated, cishet women who graduated with minimal student debt, that is now paid off. And at the time of my domestic engineer tenure, was married to a stable income provider. While the overwhelming unpaid work drove my decision to leave my nursing job, it was a choice. Rather than being forced out due unaffordable childcare costs and lacking organizational and governmental family leave policy.

There are 21.5 million working parents with children under the age 6. For a typical, middle class black family, with two young children, they spend about 56% of their income on childcare ( For reference, The Department of Health and Human Services suggest a 7% affordability benchmark. The math ain’t mathin’. The policies and systems make it clear that it is a privilege to have children and a career, especially for women. Because we all know the professional positioning that takes place when a millennial dad leaves the office early to take their kid to the dentist, right? Like, why isn’t your wife doing that?

So instead, woman attempt to solidify their superhero status by juggling it all. From the boardroom to the bedroom, she sprinkles her magic wherever she goes; rarely asking for assistance. Because that asking for help would invite questions challenging if she’s truly capable of it all. Can she have a fulfilling personal and professional life without equal partnerships, friendships, and supportive family leave policy? Well, no…she can’t. Nor should she. Remember, we weren’t built to do it alone…

To support those who need or want to contribute outside the home and/or for those who want more “unicorn space”, we focus on a couple of things. 1) redistributing domestic labor 2) Self-care through expanding awareness and communicating boundaries.

#1 Re-distributing Domestic Labor: If our wallets and well-being benefit from women in leadership, but women are drowning under outdated gender roles with unpaid work, then let’s rethink that work. One incredible resource is the FairPlay System by Eve Rodsky, that I mentioned at the beginning of the show. FairPlay is a system for dividing tasks fairly, based on your needs. Rodsky, a Harvard lawyer and founder of the Philanthropy Advisory Group which counsels families and charitable foundations on best practices, explains there are three steps to any task: Conception, Planning and Execution.

  • Conception: the generation of an idea and decision-making

  • Planning: breaking down that idea into timely, actionable steps

  • Execution: physically doing the task.

Traditionally, women scurry out of the house, leaving in their wake honey-do lists, step-by-step instructions and emergency numbers to professionally competent husbands who conveniently can’t seem to remember, or notice, the domestic details. This system makes invisible work visible with its 100 tasks spread amongst 5 categories:

  1. Home: laundry, décor, meals, cleaning and organizing, etc.

  2. Out: auto care, extracurriculars, school breaks, travel, weekend plans, etc.

  3. Caregiving: clothing, morning routine, bedtime routine, pets, estate planning, etc.

  4. Magic: birthday celebrations, holidays, nighttime comfort, values & good deeds

  5. Wild: when shit hits the fan like a death in the family, job loss, having a new baby and that baby’s first year of life, one is entitled to ask for additional help. Their partner is encouraged to contact their support network and handle the delegation of responsibilities, because we’re trying to lighten the load of the wild card holder.

This system offers physical playing cards, or a frugal digital master list, to divide amongst partners. The goal, not to distribute these 100 tasks evenly but fairly. That fairness to be determined through multiple explicit discussions between partners. Only those inside the relationship know what will work for them and this system allows for that nuance.

Asking for help in a professional, organizational context will look very different. I don’t imagine we’ll be dividing domestic playing cards between our team members. So, let’s explore what this looks like from a professional standpoint. First, in any context, uncovering your hesitation for delegating, asking for help, and saying “no” is a prerequisite. We do this through self-care and expanding self-awareness.

#2 Self-Care and Self-Awareness: Self-care isn’t expensive journals or kale salads, it’s taking the time to have a relationship with yourself; so, you can have authentic relationships with others. This includes recognizing when you need help and asking for it. If there’s a fear, preventing you from asking, investigate that fear. Step into that discomfort instead of pleasing your way around it. Are you worried about their answer? Are you concerned that you’ll be dismissed? Yeah, it’s a common one. Usually, these are learned behaviors, connected to real experiences, related to our relationship with self and others. They are driven by beliefs, mindsets, and values. Asking for help in the workplace can elicit feelings of judgment from others for looking incompetent or lazy. That’s that ultra-independence that capitalism and the patriarchy love. But let me ask you, what is the cost to you for swallowing your true needs. Who’s paying the price for that? And what could happen if you stood up for yourself?

A first step in exploring your relationship to asking for help is through expanding your awareness through reflective questions like…:

  • How does one ask for help?

  • What are the upsides to not asking for help? (i.e., how does not asking for help currently serve me – Do I think I get better, quicker results? Usually this is also an ego answer like – it makes me look competent and hardworking)

  • What are the costs to being ultra-independent?

  • What are costs to being more interdependent? (i.e., what do I have to give up to move towards collaboration)

  • What feelings surface when I think about asking for help?

  • Has there been a time in my life when asking for help was received poorly?

  • What would be an important outcome if I asked for help more often? (i.e., better work/life balance, more free time to spend with loved ones, improvement in managerial skills)

  • What is the work I’m best at or most passionate about?

  • What work do I wish was someone else’s responsibility? And which of these can I negotiate off my plate or delegate?

  • What work am I currently doing that I’m not getting paid for or assessed on in performance reviews?

If you didn’t write them down, no worries, I’ve included a worksheet with these questions in the show notes. With these answers, we’ve not only increased our awareness but most likely, built the confidence to act. Being specific in your communication and requests for help is by far the next most important step. Vagueness leaves your needs open for interpretation. If it’s important to you, make it clear.

Your conversations and emails would be well served to include the following:

  • Problem Identification: What is the current issue I’m having?

  • Project Details: What do they need to know to help me effectively?

  • Problem Solutions: What have I already tried? This helps squash unsolicited advice. Saves you from saying “Yes, Shelly, I’ve try that already. Thanks”

  • Timing: When do I need assistance? What’s the due date?

  • The Ask: What do I need them to do?

If you find yourself in a situation where you’re feeling pressure to independently solve a problem but don’t know how to proceed, asking for help can clear up the confusion and save a shit ton of time. You can ask them to coach you through the approach to the project – coaching is not advice giving. Coaching is holding space and asking questions that allows the other person to get there on their own. It increases confidence in their capabilities and protects their autonomy.

They can also:

· Clarify expectations

· Provide helpful tools

· Guide your research

· Extend the deadline

We’ve been scared and conditioned to believe that pushing a deadline, providing time for mental health breaks, or paying overtime is the end of the world. I mean, we could discuss how the 2022 wage ratio between executives and their average workers was 324:1, and how that money could be allocated more appropriately…if you want. Investing in employee well-being increases engagement, productivity , and ROI.

Let’s touch on what to do when your over-functioning (i.e performing tasks for others that they could have very well typed into a search bar and figured out for themselves.) And how you can guide them to work more independently. Did you know google is free? I’m hoping those straight, white dudes hung around long enough for their section of the show.

To determine when to work independently vs asking for help, Gorick Ng, writer for Harvard Business Review, suggests constructing three concentric circles.

The center circle represents what you already know. The middle circle denotes what you don’t know but can easily figure out yourself; and the outer ring highlighting appropriate situations to involve others. It’s within that middle circle, we get the dumping of mental labor and office housework request. That middle circle is the owner’s responsibility. And it’s also here that we need clear boundaries.

Boundaries are information about each person. What’s important to them, what they need to feel supported, safe, etc. When we blindly agree to someone’s request, we prioritize them over ourselves; and when we say “no”, we’re opening the door to all the “yeses” that mean a lot to us. Intentionality is key. Conscious awareness means conscious choice.

Because there’s never a shortage of Lazy Larry requests, this requires us to have borders around our time, energy and attention. Learning when to say “no” is just as, if not more important, than agreement. We are far more unlikely to be over-scheduled and distracted if we refuse requests from those who are fully capable of helping themselves. This is an ethical pillar of good coaching. No one is broken or in need of fixing, and everyone is capable. This is an act of respect to say “No, I believe in you. You’ve got it.” Educational efforts make a deeper and longer lasting impact than simply executing the task for another fully competent adult. Teach a man to fish, ya know? But, if you’ve spent sufficient time and energy teaching, and they still aren’t getting it, let ‘em starve.

I bring the information to light to ignite a fire. A fire I hope spreads like California in August. Obviously, the wish here, is for information dissemination not a forest disaster, but I want to be clear - it’s an analogy. While also satirically highlighting another aspect of “the mother,” that is our environment; Mother Nature.

I hope you learned something and garnered the confidence to ask, hell…demand, more support from your partnerships, organizations, governments, and communities.


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