Domestic Work, That Insidious Worldwide Bastion Of Sexism

From the poor to the pretty rich, women are still stuck with the lion's share of housework and child-rearing. By one estimate, if each hour of domestic work were paid at minimum wage, it would total 33% of France's GDP.

Housework starts young, and usually lasts a lifetime.
Housework starts young, and usually lasts a lifetime.
Moira Molly Chambers*

PARIS — In this iniquitous world, it's a very blessed woman who starts her day with a coffee break. Thanks to my industrious and, fortunately, early-rising husband, I do. But after a few short minutes, the caffeine works its dark magic. I clock in. All the baguette crumbs on the attractive 19th century parquet come into focus, as do the dollops of spilled yogurt on the tomettes, just a couple of the many fine examples of the creatively destructive force at work in my rambunctious children. Meanwhile, dust gathers on gilded mirrors in French living rooms. And it is generally a woman's hand that wipes it up.

Or at least roughly 80% of the time, according to many studies, which all of us understand to contain a certain number of approximations and vagaries. But really, when was the last time you saw a man dusting? That is our normal. Evidently only about half of humanity is strongly qualified for this type of core domestic labor. This custom runs as deeply as the oak grains through the shining wood floors at my feet.

Percentages may vary, but whether comfortably ensconced in a Paris apartment, a Los Angeles suburb or Kyrgyz Yurt, the standard remains the same. In wealthier homes the hand wiping up the dust will often be dark skinned and/or foreign. In less affluent households, the hand will be that of the mother or growing daughter. Thus a gender issue also becomes a class issue, as women who earn more money have a vested interest in keeping domestic labor cheap. Consequently, the issue takes on a political hue, and one starts to question an economy that rewards executives in industries like banking or tech more than 50 times as much as the workers who look after their children.

But why is it still so normal that women do this work? It confounds logic, considering that feminism is a term that has been kicking (and shrilly screaming, some might say) since French political philosopher Charles Fourier coined it in 1837. As much as one may be confused as to what the term actually means, feminists have made such magnificent strides that perhaps it has seemed that the battle was won. Second Wave feminists between the 1960s and 1980s ushered in a gamut of unprecedented liberties: reproductive freedom, greater access to education, protection against domestic abuse, bank loans, better pay and better jobs. Our grandmothers didn't have half so much opportunity.

Photo: Anne Worner

And perhaps it is because the feminist agenda has covered and continues to cover so much territory that so few people focus on the inequity surrounding both paid and unpaid domestic work. The subject simply lacks the urgency of issues such as female genital mutilation, rape, domestic violence, abortion, sexual harassment, prostitution or the gender pay gap. It's not so much a civil rights issue needing legislation, but more like an ancient custom that must be collectively unlearned.

Accepted and unspoken

Though everyone knows women still carry the majority of domestic workload — even when both members of a couple work outside the home — the concept and its repercussions remain relatively unarticulated beyond the tacit understanding that if you are a women with a family, you are likely condemned to a lifetime of unpaid and unfulfilling labor: picking up dirty socks, washing, drying, folding and putting away the formerly offending socks. For the rest of the family, it's done as if by magic by the invisible hands of the unseen servants in Jean Cocteau's 1946 film, Beauty and the Beast.

Working women, especially working mothers, are subjected to "the second shift," also known as "the double burden." Once she is off the clock at her paid job, she comes home to the unpaid one. But even if she can hire someone a few hours a week to come in and wipe up some dust, there remain a myriad of time-consuming tasks that require daily management. So if a woman has a paid job, it's really in her best interest to be something like the CFO of Facebook, so that she can afford some serious personnel to step in and not only pick up and wash those socks, but also buy new ones — and clip the toenails inside. And so on, from the feet on upward.

Putting the issue into perspective is a gorgeously concise 2012 study published in France by INSEE, the country's national statistics bureau. In four pages, author Delphine Roy illuminates the reality of this amorphous, shadow economy of unpaid domestic labor in France. The study claims that if each hour of domestic work were to be paid at minimum wage, it would total 33% of country's GDP. Women living as part of a couple with at least one child assume the lion's share of this labor with an average 34 hours unpaid work per week, just one hour shy of a full French work week — which, granted, is the only place on Earth where the work week is 35 hours.

A $4.3 trillion industry

How can we fix this? Do you liberate women from the work, which only pushes off the problem to paid domestic labor with fewer advantages? And what about the work that can't be delegated? Anne-Marie Slaughter's watershed 2012 Atlantic "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" piece notes with stunning clarity the limits of this system: Abundant financial resources can't buy back time not spent with children.

Some, such as Selma James and Silvia Federici in the 1960s and 70s, have asked why domestic labor is worth so little. They founded the International Wages for Housework Campaign to demand recompense for unpaid labor and reproductive work.

Photo: Hernan Pinera

But there is little evidence that anyone has ever truly entertained the idea that this free labor could or should be paid. Our international system values and demands wealth creation. Time is money. And having lots of the latter allows its possessor to invest in maintaining and creating advantages that it bestows.

According to a recently published McKinsey report, if instituted, professional gender parity in the United States would generate $4.3 trillion by 2025. But women would need to fill more high-paying and full-time posts. Which is why women find themselves in this bind of genderized labor and low pay in the first place. Reproductive work really drags on a gal's professional life as she tries to make room for family.

Clearly, it would be useful for men to pick up some of the slack — and the socks. And it would allow fathers to play a greater role in their children's lives. But will they ever do the dusting? We may have seen Mark Zuckerberg giving his newborn a bottle, but will we ever see Bill Gates clutching Endust? Without a doubt, some portion of their vast fortunes is invested in robotics, which might simply make some of this work go away. I can't wait to meet the robot that will replace me.

*Moira Molly Chambers is a freelance writer based in Paris.

This is Worldcrunch"s international collection of essays, which includes pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any other language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble address in eastern Paris that we call home. Send ideas and suggestions to info@worldcrunch.com.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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