In her recent—at moments, hilarious—article about the race to make millions by “appifying” the laundry business, Jessica Pressler repeats some surprising and infuriating tropes about the service economy that are, frankly, retrograde for women.
Writing for New York magazine, Pressler chronicles the competitive world of apps intended to take away the soul-destroying pain of having to do one’s own laundry.
The piece, which truly does read like an episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley, features Washio, a company that has inserted itself as the middleman (and I use the term middleman advisedly) between We the People-Who-Soil-Garments, and the workers that clean said garments.
Pressler quotes one of the employees of Washio, explaining the “pain point” (to use the industry lingo) that justifies his business.
From the piece:
“It’s really kind of amazing the amount of anxiety laundry causes,” says Nadler, who came back from MIT to join Washio full-time and is completing his coursework remotely. “Like, it’s Sunday, and they just want to hang out on the couch, and they are looking at this big pile of laundry they have to tackle or else they aren’t going to have any clothes. I was talking to a classmate who said he and his wife were fighting because someone had to go to the dingy basement, and he felt bad because he didn’t want to send her to the dingy basement, but he was tired, and then someone needs to get quarters, and it just was a whole thing.”
Oh, those narcissistic dudes. Oh, those petty, stupid laundripreneurs. Oh, those crazy, “lazy” bros. Imagine being put off by having to spend Sunday doing laundry? And in a “dingy” basement, no less? (To be clear, Pressler does actually call the people behind these laundry outsourcing companies and their clients, “lazy” and versions of that word.)
Hmmm. Hmmm. And hmmm again.
As a young(ish) woman who works a very full-time job and is launching a not-unrelated service in my “spare” (ha!) time, and who is married to a spouse who works a very full-time job, let me tell you, I find the underlying theme here thoroughly sexist.
Yes, I said it.
And what’s worse, it appears to be an entirely unexamined, unselfconscious sexism that, quite frankly, drives me to distraction.
To understand why, let’s look at the example that Pressler gave, via the character she quite ruthlessly skewered in her piece.
Nadler’s classmate and his wife were trying to negotiate a division of household chores, in a context where each partner was legitimately exhausted, but also, did not want to foist the dreary work of not being filthy, upon the other.
To my mind, that is a praiseworthy discussion for a 2014 couple to be having.
From personal experience, there are many times when my husband and I have each worked a 12- or 14-hour day, and found ourselves confronting the almost existential question of what to do about dinner.
It’s not that we don’t care about eating well. It’s not that we don’t want to make an effort to feed ourselves, and to nourish each other and our relationship via the shared practice of planning and preparing our meals.
We are simply tired to the point of mild concussion. And we have two dogs that need to be walked. I literally have no idea what will happen when we have kids.
So excuse me if I’m a little resistant to being labeled “lazy” after working those kinds of hours, which we both do on a consistent basis. It just so happens that we have laundry in our building, so we do our own. But my god do I love me some FreshDirect, some Seamless, and yes, some Handybook for an assist with the housework.
This is particularly true for me because, like everyone on staff at RH Reality Check, I work from home. While I love having a “commute” that involves ambling from the kitchen into the small second bedroom I’ve turned into an office, there are some challenges to working from home. Of course, there’s the personal and professional isolation that comes from not ever setting foot in an office. (That’s why my colleague Brady Swenson and I decided to start SpareChair—to create a community of people to cowork from each other’s homes, and to meet and cowork in other spaces.)
But there are other difficulties when one partner spends more time at home than the other, especially when s/he works from home.
When laundry piles up, groceries go un-bought, and tufts of dog hair waft around the apartment like canine tumbleweeds, I am disproportionately affected—not just because I am physically at home more often than my husband, and more frequently subjected to those unpleasantries, but also because those factors affect my work.
Which brings me to another point that has been, disappointingly, made elsewhere, when it comes to the part of the economy that focuses on outsourcing household chores.
I recently reread Nickel and Dimed, the masterpiece by Barbara Ehrenreich, which details her experiences going undercover as a minimum-wage worker in the early 2000s.
Her encounters were harrowing, and the book is a must-read for anyone who, well, is part of society.
Ehrenreich includes a whole section of her book where she worked for a household cleaning service, an experience she found psychologically degrading and physically unsafe (for the toll it took on workers’ bodies, including the nature of the bending, scrubbing, sweeping, as well as for exposure to chemicals.)
Those points are well-taken, but Ehrenreich also repeatedly mentioned the same assumption of laziness on the part of clients that Pressler attributed to the founders of laundry start-ups.
And in one memorable passage, Ehrenreich reasons that many of these supposedly “lazy” clients have hired cleaning help because male spouses have refused to chip in their fair share of household chores, and that couples must, she reasons, hire cleaners in order to avoid conflicts over housework. As Ehrenreich writes it, that is a morally bankrupt choice.
If I understand the way that logic would play out, it would basically place all of the burden of figuring out what to do, on a woman, and put women in a no-win situation.
Let’s consider a woman’s options in Ehrenreich’s scenario.
A woman could continue to fight her spouse to do his fair share of housework, even after repeated arguments and failure to reach agreement, which, frankly, may not be a safe—let alone enjoyable—strategy. Alternatively, she could decide the arguments aren’t worth it, and carry on doing the vast bulk of the cleaning herself, with whatever implications that has for her career and/or health.
In Ehrenreich’s view, those are basically our options, because she sees having someone else clean up after us as immoral.
That’s where I fundamentally disagree. If companies can ensure fair and decent labor standards, fair pay, and the other workers’ rights won after centuries of struggle, I simply can’t see why it is immoral or lazy to outsource these tasks. Of course, only a few households will have sufficient income to afford one or all of these services, but that doesn’t make the people who use them unethical.
(I appreciated the line in Pressler’s piece acknowledging the race issues with many start-ups; I would be enthusiastic to see more reporting on that aspect of the industry.)
In fact, rather than lazy, people who decide to pay others to take on certain tasks, may actually be cleverly investing in themselves.
Last year, the New York Times ran an article that featured economics professors Jon Steinsson and Emi Nakamura, who are “recently tenured, highly productive rising stars at Columbia University, as well as parents to an infant.”
The couple decided early in their joint lives to buy themselves the time to focus on their careers by paying others to do the mundane, menial tasks that are simply required of functional adults.
From the piece:
Steinsson and Nakamura paid for housekeeping services even when they were penniless grad students. Outsourcing household tasks meant they had to take on more debt, but they calculated — correctly — that spending an extra hour working on a paper was better for their lifetime expected earnings than spending that same hour vacuuming.
And later in the article:
“You have to start from a point where you say: What is necessary for me to be happy with my decision to be a working mother?” says Susan Athey, an economist at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. “I think a lot of working mothers end up throwing up their hands in exasperation and saying, ‘I can’t live this way!’ and quit their jobs.” If parents who want to work abandon their careers before trying outsourcing all the household tasks they don’t enjoy, or feel overwhelmed by, quitting may be shortsighted. Happiness in the present, earning power in the future and familial bliss need not be in conflict.”
I believe that the bulk of the benefit for companies such as Washio could fall to women, who we know are not only still expected to do the vast bulk of household chores, but in fact do so.
That’s why I object to the undertones of these critiques of service apps. They are sexist in that they are oblivious to the likelihood that the main beneficiaries of apps that make it easier to outsource laundry, housework, dry-cleaning, grocery-shopping, meal planning and prep, are most likely to benefit women.
Would it be better if society were equal for the sexes, and these issues did not in fact fall more heavily on the shoulders of women?
But should commentators slam companies that provide a third way in an otherwise lose-lose scenario for women? Definitely not.
In that context, I really want commentators to seriously consider whether labeling people as “lazy” is either fair or smart. (Hint: no, it’s neither fair nor smart.)
So let’s support these ideas and the entrepreneurs behind them. I’m sure there’s enough natural comedy in the start-up scene to provide fodder for future stories that are hilarious without being quite so retrograde.