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If you’ve ever screamed at the phrase “women can have it all” because you feel like you’re trying to balance an extra large pizza on a cocktail plate, there’s a word for what you’re raging about.
It’s called Egalitarian Essentialism.
Sociologists coined the term after studying the way progress toward gender equality across pay, leadership and wealth started to stall out in the 1990s. They found that this stalled progress was not driven by a reversion to the gender traditionalism of the 1950s, but rather, by an emerging cultural ideology – “egalitarian essentialism”.
“Essentialism” refers to the belief that men and women are inherently different and that men are naturally better at some things while women are naturally better at others. While “egalitarian” refers to the belief that men and women are and should be treated equally.
Now if you’re thinking – that sounds like a paradox – you’d be right.
Which is why a cultural ideology of “egalitarian essentialism” leaves so many women feeling like they cannot win, even when they’re being told they can have it all.
In a 2017 report, sociologists at the University of Maryland found that between 1976 and 2014, the belief that men and women should have equal employment opportunities substantially increased, but the belief that women should take care of home and family life also became increasingly more traditional.
The idea that women are “better at” or more “suited to” responsibilities like cleaning, cooking, scheduling, etc. perpetuates an unequal division of unpaid labor, which in turn limits progress on gender parity across metrics like labor force participation, leadership and pay, entrenching inequality in and outside the home.
As Brittany Wong writes in her essay, Millennial Men Are All For Gender Equality, But Don’t Ask About Housework, “Millennial men are cool with women leaning in at work and their wives paying half the bills ― just don’t ask the same guys to do the dishes when they get home. […] Women in marriages or cohabiting relationships are still more likely to clean the house, wash the dishes, do laundry, grocery shop, cook and make decisions about furniture and decorations ― even among younger generations who are otherwise more egalitarian in their views.”
The impact of this paradox was on stark display during the pandemic when millennial mothers were nearly three times more likely than millennial fathers to report being unable to work due to a school or child care closure.
“Millennial men have largely embraced gender equality when it comes to paid work, but research has found that these attitudes rarely extend to childcare responsibilities,” wrote the researchers.
A 2020 report found that women in the United States spend 37% more time doing unpaid care work than men, which is about 95 extra 8-hour work days each year for no pay.
Chores typically undertaken by men, like car upkeep and yard work also tend to be far less frequent and time consuming overall, while the chores disproportionately shouldered by women happen daily or several times a day.
Whether or not some women are “naturally” better at getting children to nap, arranging dinner parties or remembering to send out holiday cards than their partners, has little to do with the time it actually takes. And the problem remains that performing a disproportionate share of unpaid domestic labor directly impacts a woman’s earning potential and capacity for labor, leadership and life outside the home.
Expanding our focus from unequal pay to include the distribution and valuation of unpaid labor is the missing half of the gender revolution, says Jill Yavorksy, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte in a 2020 interview saying, “Our efforts to increase gender equality over the past several decades have really focused on changing women’s behaviors and opportunities, not men’s.”
Women continue to assume caregiving roles and perform domestic labor not because we’re all better at it or even want to, but because someone has to keep the house from burning to the ground.
So the next time you’re told gender inequity isn’t that bad anymore, or you’re screaming into a pillow because your house is a mess and it’s an exceptionally busy work week, remember: it’s not just you. And being able to “have it all” doesn’t mean much without the support to actually “do it all”.
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