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You should've asked!
The Mental Load, also called cognitive labour, is a term which has found fame in recent years. It encapsulates the invisible daily burden that comes with juggling life, work, and the responsibilities of managing a household. The brunt of this is borne heavily by women.
Examples of the Mental Load come in many shapes and sizes and are personal to each woman’s unique situation. For heterosexual couples with children such scenarios are cleverly illustrated by French comic artist Emma - see here. Does the problematic phrase ‘You should’ve asked!’ ring any bells? As Emma states ‘When a man expects his partner to ask him to do things, he’s viewing her as the manager of household chores’. The image below reflects that having to ask for help from a partner is yet another additional job on top of all the other work that sits with women in the home.
Yet even for those without children, the responsibility of family care is still evident in a woman’s role as a daughter, or sister. The concept of a never-ending to do list is also one that many of us know all too well and it can be exhausting, but by talking openly about this issue we can start sharing the load.
A weight on women across the world
Certain common factors unite women everywhere and contribute to them carrying the work, life, caring balance on their shoulders. Although one would hope that such gendered stereotypes were outdated in these modern times, evidence shows it is still the reality that women are the gatekeepers of the home and undertake the majority of emotional labour necessary to ensure the flow of life. According to a recent YouGov poll, women are still much more likely to have to do most of a couple’s housework and childcare (although from a UK source this notion is applicable cross country). The UK government also came under fire during the first national lockdown in 2020 after having to withdraw a public information campaign telling women to "stay home" during the Covid-19 pandemic and do domestic chores, proving that this rhetoric is still very much alive.
Hildrun Sundseth, President of the European Institute for Women’s Health (EIWH) said “Women are the custodians of family health”. Being responsible for remembering children’s vaccinations, check-ups and beyond means lives are literally in the hands of women.
There are also other systemic reasons why women continue to take on more of the Mental Load. From a young age gendered expectations are seeded from the toys a daughter is given to play with vs her brother, the reprimand that comes with displaying ‘unladylike’ behaviour and the rhetoric instilled in children about the maternal duties they can expect in later life. Women also often have more flexible working situations, meaning they are more available for childcare and the burden this can bring.
The Mental Load that comes with having to worry about safety is also key. At least one in five women suffer rape or attempted rape in their lifetime (WHO).The news is inundated with stories of gender-based violence against women and this influences a woman’s decision-making particularly when it comes to moving about alone.
The Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the above factors. School closures saw women adopt the role of both mother and teacher simultaneously. Women took on 78% more childcare than men during the first lockdown (ONS 2020). That’s on top of the mental strain of living through a global crisis, trying to maintain their work and for many, dealing with grief.
The Global South Divide
Although the Mental Load affects all, we know that for women in the Global South it is a heightened experience when you add on stressors such as political and economic instability. An estimated 80% of 50 million people affected by violent conflicts, civil wars, disasters, and displacement are women and children (WHO).
On top of this, the impact of the patriarchy is particularly present, with women having much less opportunity to earn their own income. The World Bank says there are 104 economies with labour laws that restrict the types of jobs women can undertake, and when and where they are permitted to work. This is particularly prevalent across Africa where women on average have fewer educational opportunities. Limited access to external public services also leaves women with less independence, while bearing the sole responsibility for managing a household in circumstances which are often unstable.
In developing countries, the responsibility of collecting water and food also disproportionately sits with women. When these resources are scarce and difficult to access the mental load is further exacerbated. Coupled with the effects of living in a protracted state of hunger which has a negative impact on mental health - one study found that food insecurity is associated with a 257% higher risk of anxiety and a 253% higher risk of depression - the mental load for women in poverty feels even heavier.
Higher earning women may be able to explore the outsourcing of some household tasks. By contrast, women who lack the financial means are often burdened by repetitive, time consuming, and physically demanding domestic activities. Women in low and middle-income countries are proven to devote more time to unpaid work than women in high-income countries (BMJ).
Concern Worldwide is working to support women in the Global South to mitigate the Mental Load in a number of ways. Concern’s ‘engaging men’ programmes offer gender equality training and make use of a comprehensive facilitator manual to engage men and women in a gender transformative process. The Umodzi project is one such initiative that has been taking an innovative approach to tackling gender inequality in Malawi. Through empowerment training, it has been successfully addressing men’s views on gender roles within the household and challenging rigid gender norms. Concern representatives in the Global South also offer psychosocial support for women to share their burden (a humanitarian response element that should not be overlooked), as well as enabling access to resources to improve their circumstances and help alleviate poverty.
Making the Mental Load visible
The Mental Load needn’t be invisible any longer and there are ways to diminish its negative impact.
Firstly, let’s keep talking. It’s important that conversations raise awareness that project management exists outside of the workplace and mental wellbeing check-ins become the norm.
Tangible policy change is also needed. Policymakers should consider the socioeconomic benefit of paid care. Equal amounts of maternity and paternity leave should be offered by employers to share the childcare load from the start. Enabling more flexible working options for men who typically have more linear office roles will have a starting effect. Investment in technology designed to alleviate the Mental Load in the home, as well as basic infrastructure such as ensuring running water to reduce both time and stress could also change lives.
Priority must be given to women living in developing countries and poverty, but together we can create a fairer world for all.
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