In a 1987 article published in the Social Problems journal, sociologist Arlene Daniels describes the concept of “invisible work,” referring to unpaid work that goes unnoticed, unacknowledged, and thus unregulated. The term “invisible labor” gets its roots from the work of Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who explores that as more women began working outside the home in the latter half of the 20th century, women were still picking up the bulk of the household and child care duties when they got home after the workday. In 1989, Hochschild coined the term “the second shift” to describe “clocking in” at home after “clocking out” of one’s professional job.
The infinite tasks of invisible labor are indeed work, and they require time and effort. But there is no financial compensation, and in many relationships these tasks go unrecognized and unappreciated, which can create a cycle of resentment and distance in relationships.
In the academic definition, invisible labor affects a wide range of marginalized groups; often it is that the people performing this labor are marginalized because their work isn’t seen, paid, or acknowledged. In more recent years, invisible labor has become shorthand for the domestic tasks and child care activities that women carry out, and primarily cisgender, heterosexual women. Of course, this same inequality exists in LGBTQ+ relationships and may be dictated by personality style, relationship dynamics, established roles within the couple, and/or any other number of reasons.
From a historical standpoint (and a patriarchal, gendered, and heteronormative perspective) “housework” and “child care” were traditionally done by women. In some instances, it is not the wife or mother of the house that is doing the invisible labor, but rather women of color, immigrant women, or white women of lower socioeconomic status, who are performing invisible labor for another family’s home.
Today the division of labor is more evenly distributed in domestic partnerships, though research shows that women still do significantly more in the home—a dynamic particularly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the past 40 years, men’s participation in housework and time spent on child care have tripled. However, even when both individuals have careers, there are still variations in how invisible labor gets divided. The New York Times reports that working from home has “highlighted and compounded the heavier domestic burden borne by women,” and McKinsey & Company research reported that one in four women are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers, versus one in five men. The three groups that were most strongly affected and faced the largest challenges are working mothers, women in senior management positions, and Black women.