In 2007, I was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma. But this story is not about that. It’s about the fact that my husband, who is an amazing dad and partner, took six months off from work to help manage the household and care for our three young children while I underwent intensive treatment. One particularly exhausting day (for him), Jeremy turned to me and said, “I can understand why some women choose to work outside the home. I am overwhelmed and, frankly, was underprepared.”
My husband is very capable. But no one, including me, had ever expected him, or shown him, how to manage the family schedule, keep track of all the doctors and medical-related processes, shop for food and cook and clean, all while tending to the kids’ emotional needs.
It made me realize, if there’s any hope for gender equality in the workplace, and hope for work-life balance for women and men, we have to start teaching our girls and boys the basics and really prepare them for adulthood: how to do the laundry, manage schedules, put dinner on the table, change diapers, manage your time, and manage a budget.
In most households, research shows, there is a distinct gender-based division of labor (boys mow, girls clean). Melinda Gates confessed to falling into this trap herself, and as a parent, I, too, catch myself engaging in questionable expectations: defaulting to my boys to unload heavy items from the car, tolerating more swearing from them than from their sisters, assuming that only the girls want to watch “Moana” — the list goes on.
But we are parents — we are not superhuman. We need reinforcement from our educational system. Schools are not doing enough to help us model equality or instill financial literacy, all the everyday knowledge that our rigorous education system had done away with, but which is vital to becoming a happy, successful adult. What we need is to bring back home economics.
Remember that? Home ec, the field of study that taught the “management of the home and community,” that prepared students for homemaking or professional careers by teaching such disciplines as nutrition, food preparation, parenting, early-childhood education, interior design and textiles, among other subjects.
In perhaps the greatest example of gender bias in school, it was not uncommon for young women to be automatically enrolled in home ec while their male classmates were enrolled in wood shop. The creation of home ec, credited to Ellen Swallow Richards in the late 1800s at MIT’s Women’s Laboratory, was steeped in feminism. Richards focused her studies on how to make home life easier and more efficient for women. She “hoped to create new professions that were connected to the elements of home life and imagined that women in particular would be drawn to these professions, creating new opportunities outside the home,” Megan J. Elias writes in “Stir It Up: Home Economics in American Culture.”
Over time, home ec fell out of favor in our schools. It got all mixed up. It became a joke. It became anti-feminist.
Anthony Bourdain, a surprising hero of the home ec revolution, wrote in his book “Medium Raw”: “Back in the dark ages, young women and girls were automatically segregated off to home-economics classes, where they were indoctrinated with the belief that cooking was one of the essential skill sets for responsible citizenry — or, more to the point, useful housewifery. When they began asking the obvious question — “Why me and not him?” — it signaled the beginning of the end of any institutionalized teaching of cooking skills.” Cooking was not seen as a valued skill, but rather an “instrument of subjugation.”
It’s time for a home ec reinvention as a crucial corrective to the challenges of gender bias and to keep women at work. I co-founded Après, a site that helps women return to or transition within the workforce. Through that, I’ve talked to thousands of members, and too many women leave the workforce because of the tremendous amount of pressure they experience at home. Even the most seemingly progressive partnerships fall prey to it. The greatest challenge today for working adults, and particularly working women, is work-life balance, so why aren’t we preparing young adults to deal with that?
We need to teach our children that running a household isn’t simply “busywork” for women, but instead an essential part of creating a strong, unbiased family. I don’t want to abolish everything feminine. There should be a division of labor, but it should not be dictated by gender. For me, feminism is about equality and the freedom of choice. Yes, women are nurturers, and we revel in that role. But not everyone takes on the role of primary caregiver with the same aplomb. Nor should they need to. I don’t want to do all the same things as my husband, I just want the same choices. Our kids should have the same choices, too.
A new and improved home ec is the answer, and here are some ideas of how we can update it.
- Rebrand it: Change the name and reinvent the coursework. How about we just call it Life Skills and truly prepare our kids for adulthood? And include important topics like financial literacy, managing a household, time management and parenting basics. Why not include the basics of carpentry, electrics and plumbing? We need to resurrect this basic, everyday knowledge that our rigorous education system seems to have pushed by the wayside.
- Make classes gender-neutral. Hire male and female teachers who can model gender equality and who can show kids how to bake a cake. And ban terms like “women’s work” and “housewife.” That will leave a lasting impression in the fight against unconscious bias. We need our children to understand that cooking isn’t just a woman’s responsibility. Women may feel more prepared to stay at work if they have a partner who is as comfortable making meatloaf as negotiating a big deal.
- Make it mandatory across all levels of education. In most school districts, home ec is optional. The number of secondary students enrolled in such programs has declined by 45 percent in the last decade, according to research by Carol Werhan, a professor in family and consumer sciences education at Pittsburg State University in Kansas. This needs to change. Middle and high school kids are easily influenced and inspired by their teachers, their coursework and their peer environment. They are discovering who they are and what they’re interested in. This is a critical time for them to have exposure to coursework like home ec to help solidify a gender-balanced view of the world. Home ec is also absent from our higher education system, where adults are on the cusp of starting a career and are most in need of this information. Our higher education system is intense — most majors don’t allow any wiggle room for electives until senior year. But it is during these years, when one’s future is on the horizon, that the practicality of all you have learned (or haven’t learned) will be put to the real test.
To make an impact, we have to start with our kids. If home ec gets the makeover and leadership it deserves, we have the opportunity to take a swing at unconscious gender inequality, and to finally give women and men the freedom to make career choices they can feel good about and the ability to manage the elusive work-life balance. We will know we have arrived when her man just innately knows that whoever is home first puts dinner on the table.
Niccole Siegel Kroll co-founded Après, a digital platform that connects experienced women returning to or transitioning within the workforce, with Jennifer Gefsky.