Compulsive cleaning no substitute for career Housework can hurt job search, researcher says.

Working women

March 23, 1992|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

In 1987 Susan Palmer moved from New Brunswick, N.J., to the Palouse, an area in the northwestern United States that includes Whitman County in Washington and Latah County in Idaho.

The Palouse is known as the pea and lentil capital of the world, and the University of Idaho and Washington State University are there.

But the area has a problem.

"Jobs are scarce for everyone, but women and minorities are disproportionately underemployed," said Ms. Palmer, a sociologist specializing in labor-market inequality and job stratification.

"Underemployed" refers to working part-time when you want to work full-time, having a job below your skills level and being underpaid.

In 1987 underemployment in the nation's non-metropolitan areas was estimated to be 21 percent of the labor force; in metropolitan areas, 16.7 percent. As in the Palouse, most underemployed are women and minorities.

Ms. Palmer was 30 years old, had a master's degree in sociology from the University of Toledo and had finished course work for her doctorate in sociology at Rutgers University. She planned to continue her doctoral studies, but meanwhile, she needed a job.

"I took the only job I could get, as a secretary for about $12,000 a year," said Ms. Palmer, now visiting instructor in sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.

The sociologist respects secretaries, but says she was clearly overqualified for the job and "dispirited" about doing it.

And a strange thing began to happen at home.

"My spouse and I had equally shared housework, but I suddenly began doing all the dishes, laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping," she said. "I clipped coupons and went to sales in a way I had never done before."

After about six months, she realized she was taking on more of the domestic burdens to feel better about the fact she was bringing less money into the household.

"Doing more housework is an admirable coping technique," said Ms. Palmer, "but it works against you, draining the energy needed to persist in looking for a better job or in upgrading your credentials."

She thought she was the only one who felt devalued and inadequate until she began discussing it at work.

"One secretary, I learned, had a master's degree in religion," she said. "Another had done advanced work in mathematics."

And both compensated for their underemployment by becoming "compulsive cleaners."

Ms. Palmer escaped underemployment when she accepted her current job but hasn't forgotten the experience: Her doctoral research, to be completed in 1993, is a study of underemployed women in the Palouse and how they do more housework in an effort to increase their self-esteem and make a "real" contribution to the family.

Her research since 1991 has led her to some theories about underemployment.

"The structure of the labor market, the jobs available and who is hired to do them, blocks the career needs of women and reinforces underemployment," she said. "There's an inadequacy in the labor market -- discrimination -- not in the woman herself."

In a society where women do 80 percent to 90 percent of all the housework, Ms. Palmer suggests that solutions to unequal distribution of housework lie outside the home, in enforcement of affirmative action in the workplace and the creation of flexible work schedules.

"If women are adequately employed and paid, I think it will reduce to some extent their domestic activities," the sociologist said.

Renee A. Redd, staff psychologist at the counseling center of the University of Illinois at Chicago, has a doctorate in counseling psychology.

"I worked to support myself through graduate school by doing word processing," said Ms. Redd, also acting director of the university's Office of Women's Affairs. "I don't mean to disparage the work, but I was not respected, fulfilled nor well-paid."

Turning to housework for solace, Ms. Redd said, "doesn't really bolster self-esteem, but it's a catharsis, a restorative process. However, you end up being exhausted because you add workload on workload."

The psychologist says that part of the inadequacy women feel comes from a society that questions whether women can handle non-traditional work.

"Doing housework is the traditional definition of what is a good woman," she said. "It's the same kind of socialization that keeps women out of math and science, which are the fastest-growing jobs, pay better and have higher status and more autonomy."

Shopping more carefully is a "response to low wages because one of the jobs women always have had is making money stretch," said Teresa Amott, economist at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. "The less fulfilled you are on the job, the more you will attempt to be effective in your personal life. In doing housework, you have control over your job."

Ms. Amott, who has a doctorate in economics, said that in the past she, too, has been underemployed. "I felt like a non-person and spent all my time frantically trying to get better jobs," the economist said.

But unlike many other underemployed women, Ms. Amott says: "Nothing was so bad it caused me to clean my house."

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