March-April 2023 Advocate: Gendered division of labor

Gender equity

Gendered division of labor: Who does the work when it’s time to do the work?

By Julia Johnson, Skyline, Professor of Automotive Technology

     Julia Johnson

Equity is the operative word on almost every campus these days. Task forces, committees, seminars and workshops have blossomed everywhere, all devoted to studying the problem of equity on our campuses.  We as a group are taking a critical look at how we treat our colleagues, how we make hiring decisions and how our curriculum affects staff and students alike.  And it’s about time. Long overdue, in fact.

There is, however, a glaring inequity in our attempts to address inequity. It seems that many of these task forces   and trainings gloss over, or fail to mention at all, the gender inequity that persists on every campus.  Is it so easy to overlook? Is gender equity not a priority? Is this inequity accepted as acceptable?

To the women on my campus (and all campuses, I would imagine), gender equity is very important.  Not any more or less important that equity for all marginalized groups, but just as important to look at ways in which women experience discrimination, microaggressions, harassment and lack of advancement opportunities in our schools. Our workplaces and our classrooms are supposed to be safe, supportive and inclusive for women too.

AFT 1493’s Anti-Oppression Committee (AOC)

In the San Mateo County Community College District, women have come together from all three colleges to address this need and demand inclusion in the process of creating safe and equitable schools.  The Anti-Oppression Committee (AOC) of AFT 1493 has been working toward creating a space for women to be heard. They have studied the issues that women on campus deem imperative and have developed demands to address them. They have made great strides in making the voices of women on campus heard.

One of the first initiatives the AOC pursued was to create Gender Oppression Listening Spaces for women to talk about their lived experiences through a virtual safe space gathering, as well as an anonymous online discussion board. Another on-going initiative studied the Title IX process in the district, identified problematic processes and lack of transparency and presented demands to correct these deficiencies to the Board of Trustees and the college presidents.

What is gendered labor?

One topic that the AOC seeks to address is the issue of gendered labor division.  Gendered labor is so ingrained in our society as to be almost invisible. It has a serious, but often overlooked impact on the lives and careers of the women in our communities.  Take a look at your own campus and notice – who typically handles the details for meetings or events on campus? Who takes notes at meetings? Who volunteers to chair a new committee or do research for agenda items and presentations? Who cleans up after meetings and events?  Chances are pretty good that it’s the women in the group. This is not to say that men don’t also do these “chores” – they pitch in too, right?  Yes, they help – but no, not nearly as much.

“Numerous studies have shown that women bear the brunt of the chore work and do much of the behind-the-scenes work that is invisible – and essential. Deemed ‘non-promotable tasks’, these chores eat up time and attention of women, primarily.”

Numerous studies have shown that women bear the brunt of the chore work and do much of the behind-the-scenes work that is invisible – and essential. Deemed “non-promotable tasks”, these chores eat up time and attention of women, primarily. In the article “Female Faculty – Beware the Non-Promotable Task,” the authors note: “Compared with men,” they write, “women are 48 percent more likely to volunteer (when a volunteer is sought), 50 percent more likely to say yes when asked directly, and 44 percent more likely to be asked.”

A recent study published in the American Economic Review found this: “We examine the allocation of a task that everyone prefers be completed by someone else (writing a report, serving on a committee, etc.) and find evidence that women, more than men, volunteer, are asked to volunteer, and accept requests to volunteer for such tasks.”

But somehow gendered labor in the workplace doesn’t even garner a second look in all of the soul searching done in the equity committees and the task forces.  Gender inequities, in general, don’t warrant a second look. There is an occasional nod to the wage gap, but something as seemingly minor as “who does the work” rarely comes up.  Or if it does, it is dismissed as minor. Trivial. Unnecessary. There are bigger issues to tackle here.  Be quiet, honey. The men are talking.

Unequal division of labor truly does have an impact on women – their careers, their mental health, even their physical health can be affected. It is unfair. It is inequitable. It is invisible and, worst of all, it is accepted.

Women faculty share grievances

In the AOC’s Gender Oppression Listening Space online, women could anonymously air their grievances, vent a little, support one another and learn about how widespread gender inequity still is.  One woman stated, “Take a look at the committee work at our campus and you will find nearly every single committee is chaired by women. Men on committees feel free to offer complaints, criticism, analysis, suggestions for action, but when it’s time to actually do the work, they don’t step up to do it.”

Taking leadership roles, launching initiatives, coordinating events, attending to the details – these all take time More time than one might think. A trip to the store – 30 minutes.  Collecting statistics for a committee meeting – hours. Completing equity training to better serve their colleges – hours and hours.  Attending all the meetings for the committees, task forces and seminars – many, many more hours.  Another anonymous contributor noted, “Male colleague guffaws over the notion of getting equity training. Criticizes the idea as a waste of their time…  Instead the colleagues who attended the program, were all women, and women of color, including adjuncts. We all made time for it, we always make time for it, while our male counterparts don’t and don’t see an issue with that.”

Emotional labor robs women

This extra emotional labor robs women of their time. Time that could be spent advancing their careers. Added up, all of those extra hours could have been committed to earning an advanced degree, or attending update training in their field of study, writing a dissertation, or creating new programs. This is time not spent on our work. Time not spent with our families. Time that is not used to advance our careers in the same way as our male colleagues.

In addition to the time spent doing this work, there is also the perception that this kind of work is beneath the dignity of the important people in the room. Author Liz Mayo states, “Domestic tasks are seen as ‘garbage work’ to be completed by people believed incapable of handling ‘matters of significance.'”  It is “less than” and, by association, the women doing it are less than as well.  One of our faculty members stated, “I’m tired of having my scholarship, my feelings, and my work constantly questioned, reduced, or dismissed out of hand while I watch men in the same spaces be lauded, graciously thanked, and treated with silken gloves… It’s the height of hypocrisy.”

Speaking from experience

I can speak to this from my own experience. I have been teaching for 14 years. In my early years I was eager to please my supervisor and the administration and I threw my effort into the extra work that needed to be done. I can easily say that I spent anywhere from 10 to sometimes 30 hours a week on attending to details to advance our department’s reputation and bolster our enrollment. Creating recruiting events, finding vendors, doing cost comparisons, compiling mailing lists, making cold calls, creating databases, analyzing outcomes, writing grants, pursuing sponsors, visiting employers, attending meeting after meeting after meeting… So much time put into tasks that were outside the curriculum – tasks that my male colleagues weren’t interested in doing.

While I focused on the people and relationships (traditionally a woman’s role), they put the bulk of their time toward advancing their own training, buying equipment and tools for their classes, building demonstration models and learning about the latest advances in technology.  These are things I should have been doing as well. These endless hours of work that I did were in addition to (and many times instead of) my training and professional growth.

One might say that’s not gendered work, it’s just work. But in my case, in a male dominated industry and male dominated department – this work was dealing with relationships and people. It had to do with the social aspect of our department. It was not the “hard” content of the technology and was therefore less important.  My supervisor at the time said of my work,  “Let her do whatever she wants, just as long as it doesn’t affect the full-time program” – the program that my work was supporting. The work that I was doing helped fill seats in their classes and jobs in our community, but it was not as important as the technology they taught. This attitude has negatively affected my career to this day.

Unseen and unquestioned

I am one of thousands of women who routinely put their own work and their own professional growth behind the additional work that “needs to be done”.  They are stepping up, volunteering, collaborating and putting time and emotional labor into the details, to their own detriment. The expectation that women do what needs to be done is so deeply ingrained in our society and our beliefs that no one sees it. And yet, this unacknowledged work is the backbone of much of what we as educators do. As noted by one of our professors, “If women quit all the leadership roles they have on this campus everything would grind to a halt.”

This labor is important, time consuming, beneficial to the group and unfortunately for us –  invisible.  No one ever questions that the only woman in a meeting will be taking notes.  No one stops a woman from cleaning out the fridge in the break room. No one jokes about something being “man’s work”. Countless initiatives on campuses across the state are focused on equity, but does gender equity have an equal place on the agenda? Is it discussed at all?

Take a look at your own school – see the women and the work they do. Look at the equity training and initiatives on your campus – is gender equity mentioned? Is there an effort being made for the women on your campuses? This invisible work and the women who do it need to be acknowledged, appreciated and most importantly, this labor needs to be shared equitably.  If this is not the case on your campus – take the initiative. Address gender inequity where you see it and share the burden. It’s your turn to bring the paper plates.



Linda Babcock, Maria P. Recalde, Lise Vesterlund, Laurie Weingart. “Gender Differences in Accepting and Receiving Requests for Tasks with Low Promotability.” American Economic Review 107: 3 (March 2017) pp. 714-47.

Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund, Laurie Weingart. “Female Faculty: Beware the Non-Promotable Task – Mentoring, committee work,  and other campus service disproportionately burden women.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 5, 2022.