Women’s worries are hard work

In this post-feminist era, most Americans have considered the issue that household chores are work. But Nursing School Dean Afaf Meleis went a step further. Worry needs to count as work, too, she said.

It was one of a number of conclusions Meleis presented from a study she and 26 collaborators conducted, entitled “Women, Work, Health and Quality of Life.” She gave the talk to about 55 women—including some nursing professors from Bangkok— and one man at the first meeting of the academic year of the Association of Women Faculty and Administrators (AWFA) in September at Houston Hall.

The study examined the lives of more than 1,000 women in low-income, low-status jobs—including fishermen’s wives in Brazil, per diem maids in Colombia, clerical workers in the United States and auxiliary nurses in Mexico. The study also included farm workers in Egypt, Meleis’ native country.

What the study found was that low-income, low-status women everywhere have similar issues.

Meleis said that working outside the house places extraordinary demands on women’s traditional roles as wives, mothers and caretakers of extended families. Those traditional roles are broader, more demanding and more valuable than their societies define them. They include chores like getting the children to school or family members to the doctor. And they include emotional work—worrying if the kids are using drugs or if they’re safe at home alone, for example.

Meleis pointed out that American women’s work is also undervalued. Two examples she gave were the lack of research on the health effects of household cleaning materials or on the light and heavy lifting women do at home.

Even questionnaires that ask “Do you work, yes or no” assume that paid work is the only work that counts. “It goes to the heart of how we keep statistics in this country,” she said. And that affects how we deliver health care.

Referring to her research team, Meleis said, “We became enraged at the way we’ve defined work for women over the years.”

The talk was also sponsored by the Penn Women’s Center and FOCUS, a new group about women’s issues, at the Medical School.

For information on AWFA, go to www.upenn.edu/affirm-action/awfa.

Originally published on October 3, 2002