Mattie Lee Martin, taking care of someone else’s children so they can do other things.

(Academic) Housework: The Engine of Science (& Society)

In our stories of scientific genius, scientists think great thoughts. They execute great experiments. They draw great conclusions. They stumble along the way, but eventually they stumble into greatness.

One of the things all homo sapiens sapiens intuitively understand from the first moment that we draw breath: we do not function without food, without water. We are organic substances that require continuous sustenance. It is the biological outcome of the physical principle: there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine. Energy that is dissipated has to be replaced.

We also learned along the way that sanitation matters. Newton hid from the plague during his miracle year, but had the plague found him anyway, that miracle year would be nothing to speak of.

We also continue to study the extent to which it matters that children are cared for and loved. We consider it a crime if they are neglected, even though it doesn’t seem to be terribly criminal to shoot them if they are Black. But on some level, we have agreed that at the very least white children deserve love and care. This includes the children of scientists.

Thus, before Einstein’s equation, before the gravitational waves, comes sustenance. Eating. The provision of eating. People who pick the food, feed the animals, slaughter the animals, who cook the food, who make sure we remember to eat it.

And for all those pieces of paper we throw out there are people who come to remove the mess, to ensure the office remains somewhat sanitary. People who scrub our toilets and mop our floors. People who think of policies to keep us healthier at work.

Many of us, especially the cis men among us, benefit also from having someone at home whose full time job is taking care of the cooking and in many cases the raising of the children. Someone raised Einstein’s children. Someone raised the children of the many men who got LIGO started. Many women continue to raise the children of the many men who are still working on LIGO.

We don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about the women at home making those Nobel Prizes and experiments and theories possible. The mothers and wives who kept sheets and clothing clean and did all the kid-related things so that their husbands could focus. They are not paid for this work.

We don’t talk about the women who did the workplace version of this, the administrative assistants who typed up dissertations in the decades before LaTeX came along. The admins who almost certainly often had to tolerate sexual harassment and sometimes sexual assault. They were certainly not paid enough and in many cases have been eliminated from the workplace.

We don’t talk about the poor and working class people, usually of Black, Latinx and Asian heritage, who get paid below a living wage to keep the floors clean and the bathrooms tidy.

We don’t talk about how without all of this, scientific work is not possible.

We don’t talk about how because of all this not talking, people of color and white women scientists are often treated like extensions of this multiperson helpforce that keeps men’s science going.

We are asked to be patient while white cis men can be as strident as they want. We will not be paid for this patience.

We are asked if we can handle the “people stuff” because we are “just so good at that!” We will not be paid for this work.

We are told we are natural educators and natural carers, but rarely given the same messaging about our research abilities. We are the ones whose schedules seem like 24–7 office hours for colleagues and students to stop by and cry and kvetch in. We will not be paid for this work.

We are the most likely ones to show concern for people being marginalized. We take on other colleagues’ students when those colleagues can’t be bothered to properly mentor a student who is not like themselves. We will not be paid for this work.

We will be asked over and over to meet with women in science clubs and dole out advice that the institution is not providing for its women students. We will not be paid for this work.

We will be the ones who note that those meetings are mostly white cis women and that there are no similar meetings for Black students or Native students or transgender students or anyone at those intersections. We will not be paid for this work.

We will be the ones who are asked over and over on Twitter to “keep educating us because we need it.” Because why learn when you can ask a Black person to repeatedly be your brain for you? For free? It’s an American tradition after all.

We people of color and white trans/genderqueer/cis women and non-binary people do the academic housework that helps keep academia running. We are not paid for this work.

And we are punished for it when it comes time to apply for jobs and tenure.

We deserve better. Not because we’ve got PhDs or are working toward some kind of graduate degree. We deserve better than this because we’re human. We deserve better than this because every single person who does support work that keeps science going is deserving of respect.

Not that anyone will pay attention to this call for better respect for the people doing support work in physics. Instead of providing resources accordingly, making sure administration positions are properly staffed and janitors are well-paid and that parents of any gender have access to affordable childcare, the community will likely continue to blather on about a meritocracy and how it will all be fixed if we just get more diverse students into graduate school.

Quit lyin’, no it won’t.

It will be better when we better value all of this unwaged work that people do at home and the low-waged work that people do in and around our offices and labs.

It will be better when the work of ending and at the very least alleviating the experience of marginalization is seen as a fundamental part of every academic’s job.

It will be better when men and the institutions they dominate realize (by force or otherwise) that asymmetries in child bearing are not an excuse for disparities in labor distribution or professional outcomes.

For now, I am grateful that my husband helps me get everything done. I am grateful I have had multiple opportunities to credit him with that help.

When will my male colleagues start to do the same?

end note: The idea of Wages for Housework is not a new one but was rather first fully articulated by my grandmother, Selma James. But it’s past time that we as a community take it seriously.