Grazia: The Problem Of Invisible Labour – And Why YOU Should Down Tools This International Women’s Day

For International Women’s Day on 8 March, Grazia commissioned an exclusive survey that revealed women are still doing more at home. Writer Sally Howard, whose new book is about all the work women do to keep a household running smoothly, isn’t surprised…


On 8 March 2018, a year into my infant son’s life, I decided to go on domestic strike. My direct action was prompted by the shock quadrupling of domestic labour that had arrived, like an unwelcome gift, with my pink-faced newborn: the stacks of milk- sticky laundry; the endless carousel of kitchen and bathroom cleaning ; the tedious mashing and puréeing of baby food.

While my partner Tim and I had prided ourselves on our egalitarianism as childless cohabitees, I was alarmed to find that the lioness’s share of this parenting work had fallen on my aching shoulders.

And I’m not alone in this: studies have found that the arrival of a baby increases the domestic load by around three hours a day, with only 40 minutes of this parent-labour penalty falling to men. Indeed, according to Grazia’s survey, 71% of women said they’d taken more time off work for childcare reasons, the same number said they had organised their child’s last birthday party – and a huge 87% buy most of their children’s clothes.

Worse was the ‘invisible labour’ that accompanied these myriad manual tasks. It was me who was expected to know whether my baby was up-to-date with his inoculations and developmental milestones; it was ‘Mum’ the nosy health visitors addressed their questions to (women lose our given names as soon as we pop out a fresh human being); and me who had to be across such tasks as sending thank-you cards for unwanted babygros and buying biscuits for in-laws’ visits. Child covered in spew and kitchen in disarray? The blame, and judgement, fell at my swollen feet. However many nappies Tim changed, or milk stains he sponged, I was the one – in society’s eyes and in Tim’s – with whom the domestic buck stopped.

Domestic labour has always been a tricky injustice to protest against. It takes place in the privacy of the home, making it difficult for women to see each other doing this work and to collectively acknowledge that men do not share equally in its burden. And there can be dire consequences if we withdraw this labour: children uncared for and vulnerable relatives unfed. Our new cultural awareness of categories of invisible labour, from the mental load of household management to the feminine work of soothing, smiling and chivvying that’s been dubbed ‘emotional labour’, has done little to remedy women’s domestic plight. British women today contribute 20 hours of weekly domestic effort to British men’s 12, a 60% domestic labour gap that hasn’t budged since the 1990s.

In the months leading up to my first strike, I totted up my worth in today’s job categories. My calculation came to a cool £176,667 a year.

So why strike? For all their complexities, housework strikes have a long feminist history. On 24 October 1975, 90% of Iceland’s adult female population left their jobs, their children and their homes and took to the streets for a general strike that was billed as ‘Women’s Day Off’.

Their demands? Equal wages for equal work and a recognition of the 50 hours of unpaid labour that women undertook every week in Icelandic homes. For Icelandic men, the day became known as ‘the Long Friday’. With no women to staff desks and tills, banks, factories and shops were forced to close, as were schools and nurseries – leaving fathers with no choice but to take their children to work. (There were news reports of men bulk-buying colouring crayons and quick-cook sausages.)

Forty-five years after Women’s Day Off, its legacy lives on, with Iceland ranked top in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, an index that examines educational opportunities, life expectancy, pay equity and the average time spent each day on housework.

In the same era, feminists abandoned their domestic duties to march on New York and Washington DC, bearing placards that called out the injustices of what was then dubbed ‘women’s work’: ‘Housewives are unpaid slave labourers!’ ‘Tell him what to do with the broom!’ and, brilliantly, ‘Don’t iron while the strike is hot!’.

American feminist activist group Wages for Housework tried to quantify the financial value of women’s unpaid labour to the economy, figuring that the 1970s housewife’s combined skills of cook/ dietician, domestic cleaner, hostess, book-keeper, party organiser and chauffeur – among other diverse skills – would come to $60,000 a year (£100,000 in today’s money).

In the months leading up to my first strike, I totted up my worth in today’s job categories. My back-of-a-rusk-packet calculation came to a cool £176,667 a year, for cleaning (£19,946), private cheffing (£50,000), advanced PA £35,000), nannying (£34,721) and life-coaching services (£37,000).

So how did my first strike go? The first stumbling block was the date. With Tim at work on International Women’s Day (8 March) and my son not booked into nursery, I was in charge of a small kid with no childcare to hand. Striking on IWD would constitute child neglect and, as I scrambled around for untested babysitters, would supplant my day’s labour with a mental load of administrative chores.


I decided instead on a 9 March private direct action – a home strike! – which extended, in the end, from 8am to 5pm (time of the nursery pick-up), then from 7.15pm onwards. I didn’t tell Tim why our flat had descended into chaos until the following evening, when he confided he’d been quite pleased
to cook his own pasta and eat at a Continental hour, but had wondered why Leo had gone to bed in a sleeping bag that smelled ‘more than faintly of piss’. But, after the shock of the strike sunk in, the message landed: I wanted Tim to acknowledge the work that, to many men, registers as non-work
– present buying, managing domestic calendars and, among many other tasks, auditioning and arranging childcare.

Women are once more seeing the potential in withdrawing their labour en masse. International Women’s Strike, also known as Paro Internacional de Mujeres, is a global movement that staged its first action on IWD 2018 (when I was busy collecting strewn raisins off the floor of a Lewisham soft-play), with a series of strikes across Spain and South America. In Madrid and Barcelona, male feminists staffed communal nurseries as women marched for recognition of the 26.5 hours of weekly domestic labour Spanish women contribute compared to Spanish men’s 14, and the symbol of the strike, cooking aprons, fluttered from apartment balconies.

What would Britain look like if women downed tools for a day? We might soon find out. On 8 March 2020, tens of thousands of women will gather in London’s Cavendish Square for International Women’s Strike 2020. Dressed in red, #westrike will take place alongside women who are affected by the devaluation of women’s work in the public sphere: care workers, cleaners of hotels and private homes and NHS nurses. Our march is against structural sexism and racism and the lazy assumption that women will always
be there to wipe, mop, blow noses and pick up the pieces after men’s actions.

Will you, too, down domestic tools and learn to say a resounding ‘no!’ to the work that’s ascribed to women on the basis of nothing but the shape of our genitals? If a day’s tricky, why not try what Selma James of Wages For Housework calls a ‘small resistance’? Head out for a solo walk, forget about the ironing or sweating over Sunday lunch; bang the pots and pans.

Whatever you do, step away from the squeegee, Grazia comradistas. Don’t iron while the strike’s hot!

Sally’s book, The Home Stretch – Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does The Dishes (Atlantic Books), is out now.

READ MORE: Women Will Work For Four Years Longer Than Men

READ MORE: Are You At Risk From The Gender Health Gap?