The Mental Load: Understanding Hidden Gender Gaps in Household Labour among Parents and their Political Consequences

This event is Seminar 1 in DSPI’s Hilary Term Seminar Series.

How do levels of cognitive household labour — the “mental load’‘ involved in anticipating, fulfilling, and monitoring household needs — affect political engagement? The mental load is distinct from the physical tasks of e.g., cooking and cleaning, and thought to be disproportionately undertaken by women.

I argue that women have higher mental loads than men, and that large mental loads crowd out space for political interest and engagement. To test this argument, I field a descriptive survey on politics and household work to a representative sample of parents in the United States. I find that mothers report being mostly responsible for 72 percent of cognitive household labour, compared to fathers’ 45 percent. In line with expectations, high levels of the mental load decrease certain forms of political engagement, including interest in national political issues and the frequency of political discussion with friends and family, especially among mothers.

The findings of this first descriptive study correspond well to a second experimental study which primes the salience of personal mental load. Using a survey experiment, we find a strong negative effect of mental load priming on intentions to engage in politics and at work among parents in the UK. Together, the results offer new insights about a gender gap too often hidden, and its consequences for gender equality in public life.

Booking is required for people outside of the Department of Social Policy and Intervention (DSPI).

DSPI Members do not need to register.