There are activities that are so invisible that they may even be invisible to the person who performs them. This is the case for the cognitive dimension of housework, one of the most successful sociological concepts of recent times. The aim of this article is to present the concept, to unmask it, and to suggest some alternatives to prevent excessive inequality in the mental workload from having negative consequences for households and paid work.
The mental burden of organising everything that needs to be done
Arlie Hochschild, in his book The Second Shift, published in 1989, realised that even in the most egalitarian couples, in the strict sense of the distribution of tasks, one of the two was the computer, the CPU at home. A simple question, “What’s the cooking today?”, helped her to understand that, although the tasks are equally distributed – you do this, I do that – there is a meta-task that is omnipresent, and paradoxically invisible: the mental organisation of everything that has to be done. Today we’ll have that or the other for dinner, tomorrow our son has piano lessons and must not forget the book, or next week we must take my father to the neurologist. These are tasks that, although they do not require action, they do require a cognitive effort, a mental effort. In this article on what is co-responsibility we deal with this topic in depth.
Much more recently, Alison Daminger, a young Harvard doctoral student, has gone a step further, and based on a qualitative study with heterosexual couples, has further refined the concept suggested by Hochschild. This concept is that of the cognitive dimension of housework and is divided into four broad dimensions:
- Anticipating needs
- Identifying alternatives
- Decision making
- Monitoring process.
We could go on with many examples. Our daughter is about to celebrate her birthday, and we have to prepare a party for her or edit a video with messages, or my mother seems to be losing her faculties, and we have to do something about it. These are mental activities necessary to project future physical actions. However, these mental tasks and this cognitive dimension of work have four main characteristics:
- They are omnipresent, so they’re constantly performed.
- They are invisible, so invisible that they become invisible to those who perform them and to their environment.
- They generate fatigue and conflict, although sometimes also enrichment and joy.
- They are carried out to a much greater extent by women than by men.
The mental burden remains a female burden
Going into much more detail among the couples in the study, Daminger observed that certain patterns emerged across the four broad dimensions (Daminger, 2019). For example, of the four dimensions (anticipate, identify alternatives, decide, monitor), women virtually always performed dimensions 1 and 4 (anticipate and monitor) on their own, while dimension 2 (identify alternatives) was done both individually and jointly, and dimension 3 (decide) was virtually always carried out consensually.
Thus, men are largely involved in the intermediate phase of the cognitive dimension of the work (identifying alternatives once a need has been anticipated, and deciding collaboratively). However, the beginning and the end of the process is left to women.
This reality unmasked by Daminger invites us to think about its implications. For example, in everything related to paid work. According to the author, domestic cognitive work can be a potential source of distraction in other domains such as the workplace.
As a consequence, she may be penalised and excluded (i.e. dismissed). Alternatively, women may exclude themselves from certain positions and sectors that wouldn’t allow them the flexibility or time to manage the anticipation of needs (self-exclusion). Among other measures, it would be necessary to put an end to these clear barriers:
- Understanding, unmasking and distributing, if appropriate, the cognitive dimension of domestic work.
- Schedule anticipation. Although it seems difficult, some tasks can already be marked on the calendar by selecting shared moments of anticipation of needs (e.g. summer camp). You can write today on next year’s calendar which weeks, days, you will talk about, discuss, or identify summer camp options, so that neither of end up noticing over the course of the year an unresolved need, with one of you taking on most of the mental burden eventually.
- Schools or other institutions: Reflect on whether cognitive workloads are often imposed on parents. Schools, in all good intentions, organise a considerable number of activities (excursions, end-of-year festival, Christmas parties) that require an extra mental workload on one of the two parents. In no case does the suggestion invite to do away with such activities that enrich children’s lives, but to reflect on whether the way in which the activities are planned will impose a greater or lesser burden of cognitive work that will end up being carried out by one of the two parents.
- Organisations: As the social actor that the organisation is, it must be aware that employees, especially dual-earner couples, have different social needs than in the last century. It is necessary to reflect on whether talented women, due to the burden of cognitive work, are certainly excluded or self-excluded from leadership positions, and at the same time to offer, as far as possible and without affecting the quality of service and productivity, flexible environments, so that the employee has sufficient autonomy to successfully manage their personal and professional responsibilities.
Daminger, A. (2019) “The Cognitive Dimension of Household Labor”, American Sociological Review, 84(4), pp. 609–633. doi:10.1177/0003122419859007.