Invisible work

Posted by on Mar 27, 2012 in Blog | 0 comments

How many times have you fought with a partner over childcare or household work?

Or been told once you’ve had a meltdown that you just needed to ask for help?

The forever unfolding to-do list that most women carry in their heads is a major cause of women’s depression, anxiety, and eventual burn out.

It is driven by cultural bias.  It is called invisible work.

What is invisible work?

Invisible work includes tasks or obligations that others take for granted or fail to understand.  Here are some common examples:

childcare (a mother is “looking after” her children; a father is “babysitting”– mother is considered the default caregiver and must ask for time away from her children whereas the father is more free to come and go as he pleases)

emotional caregiving (everything from helping family members discuss and regulate feelings, coordinating gifts and holiday plans that maintain friendships and family relationships, to “coloring within the lines” and following a script about what it means to be feminine [aka, beautiful, pleasing, thin, and kind])

household work (also known as “the second shift”– even with modern men taking on more of the household work, they are still doing far less than 50% on average)

The often well-meaning suggestion that women simply need to ask for help or delegate highlights a key piece of this dynamic:

Telling you to delegate or ask for help suggests that the work is ultimately your responsibility.  It puts you, as the woman, in charge of these tasks.  Some people call this the “mental load” that women carry.  Even if they are not completing all the tasks themselves, women are still held responsible for it all getting done.

Initiating work requires ownership.  Putting women in charge of delegating or completing tasks “because you’re better at it than I am is also a part of the problem.

Invisible work is a major problem, and a primary cause of female exhaustion, depletion, and resentment everywhere.  And when women protest and try to make it visible and consciously divided?  They’re often met with strong resistance.

Where’d it go?

There are a few ways that this invisibility is cultivated.  Part of it happens based on how men and women are socialized and what we observe by learning.

Some of it is based on what our culture values.  Sometimes it is a matter of having high competence or skill set that we end up saddled with extra work that we didn’t sign up for.  Often, it is a combination of these factors.

The unifying theme is one of blindness, in ourselves and in others.  We fail to recognize our own meaningful contributions, and others persistently take our help for granted.


Personality.  Invisible work accumulates quickly among people who are perfectionists or have a hard time delegating or asking for help.  High achieving folks and people-pleasers are also prone to oversubscribing themselves in an effort to be helpful or high-performing.  Women are raised to be people-pleasers by default, further compounding the problem.

Cultural values.  Unpaid work is invisible work—childcare, housework, emotional and relational caregiving often go “unseen.”  In most cases, work traditionally done by women is undervalued and invisible.

Gender.  This may vary somewhat by relationship, but there are common trends in the division of labor by gender.  Men often take responsibility for invisible tasks of household financial planning and decision-making, yard work and repairs.  Women tend to hold responsibility for emotional caregiving, childcare, wedding planning, and housework.  Studies have also written on the topic of maternal gatekeeping, that is, a phenomenon in which women sometimes inadvertently block their partners’ efforts to help out with childcare and housework.  This dynamic ultimately reinforces the problem of the burden of competence.  Studies also show that on average, women do more of the housework than men even if they make more money than their male partners.

Skill set.  “Hey, I’ve got a quick favor to ask…” If you’ve got a unique or useful skill set, you may find yourself surrounded by family or acquaintances asking you for help here and there.  But, small favors can quickly snowball into frequent or involved projects.  If you’re the “go to” tech person in your family, or the empathic listener at work, you may end up with two jobs—the work you signed up for, and the work you didn’t.

Hey, that’s not invisible!

You may have read the list I just supplied and protested.  “That work is acknowledged and valued in my family!  We discussed our division of labor consciously and often and we’re all happy with our arrangement.  You’ve got it all wrong, Ann.”

At least, I hope that’s what happened.  If this concept is foreign to you, wonderful.  You can stop reading and go have a cupcake or something.

But, I know I’m not the only one who has struggled with this issue—struggling under the burden of work that doesn’t even have a clear shape or name but certainly has a big weight to it.

So, get curious:  what invisible work is lurking in your life?  What needs to be recognized?  What needs to be redistributed?

See and get seen.

It feels good to get credit for the work you’ve done.  So when you’re ready, spread the love and turn your inquiry outwards.  What favors or help do you receive that is camouflaged by your routine or habits?

I think we’d all do a lot better if we gave people credit for all the things they do.  Reflect on your own life and examine the invisible work that has accrued there.  Get curious about making this work known to others.  Be open to identifying previously unexamined contributions that other people make, and thank them for it.  It’s one more way of seeing yourself and others in an honest, authentic way.

Just don’t forget:  these patterns carry forward if they aren’t interrupted.  It’s hard work to make these dynamics visible, but they’re unlikely to change if you don’t.


As always, knowing which changes to make isn’t the hardest part of change.  It’s actually doing it, and sustaining those changes over time, in spite of the resistance and backlash that may come.

Helping people pleasers is what I do!  So, if you’re in Austin, Texas, and you’re looking for a counselor who helps people-pleasing mamas, drop me a line.  I offer free, half hour consultations in person at the office, and I’d be glad to set one up for you.

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