Why cooking dinner made me lose my appetite

in Gender Gap , Tagged dual-career families, Work/Family, Domestic labor, Unpaid labour, Work-life balance, Parenting.
  • Kerry Mills

    Kerry is a scientist who is an expert in evidence-based policy and meta-analysis. She obtained her undergraduate degrees in Arts and Science at the Australian National University (Canberra, Australia), qualifying with first-class honours. She then undertook a PhD at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research - Australia’s top research institute - before taking up postdoctoral work in Heidelberg, Germany. Kerry is an adjunct professional associate at the University of Canberra, where she continues to lecture and publish high-impact scientific research. She is also the Senior Scientist at TruDataRx, where she performs comparative efficacy analysis on pharmaceutical drugs.


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Gender Gap:

It's hard to stomach the gender gap in the division of labor in Australia. On average, women spend 13 hours more per week than men on unpaid labour. The transition to parenthood has been shown to have a significant impact, with the hours spent on domestic labor dramatically shifting after the birth of a child. But why is this shift so often irreversible? And what has cooking dinner got to do with it? 

Dr Kerry Mills is former research scientists who once made a significant discovery for the treatment on chronic Hepatitis B. And yet, despite her stellar career and egalitarian values, after the children came along she found herself deeply entrenched in the domestics. Today on BroadAgenda, she weaves the personal with the political as she explores the real cost of cooking dinner. 

It was just another Thursday evening. I got a call from my husband to let me know he was going to be late home so he could finish off some urgent work. We needn’t wait for him before we start eating. It occurred to me then, not for the first time, that he could only stay back because I was the cook in the family.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, when we first married, I specifically said to him, “I will NOT be cooking every day!” at which point he looked at me as if I had suggested I would not be showering from now on. Then the kids came along.

I am not the first woman to notice a gradual and irreversible shift in household roles only after children are born

I am not the first woman to notice a gradual and irreversible shift in household roles only after children are born. It starts with being at home with your newborn – and somehow you feel that if you’re home anyway, you might as well…and before you know it, you’re the Executive Manager of Home Affairs. You’re the primary contact at the childcare centre, you pay the bills, write the shopping list, and fill out the school notes. You volunteer at the sausage sizzle, arrange play dates, book the school holiday program. You know what books the kids have read, buy the birthday presents, and write the Christmas cards. And on it goes.

Much has been written lately about the ‘mental load’ and its impact on women. While incredibly time-consuming and exhausting, this is not the killer for academic women. Nor is it having to do everything that stops us achieving. Rather, it’s being home in time to cook dinner.

I used to be a research scientist. Being in the lab was an overwhelming joy. In my Honours year at the ANU, I discovered that amiloride blocked the ion channel function of the HIV protein, Vpu. During my PhD at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research, I made gene knockouts of the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, and published several high-impact research papers. My postdoctoral work in Germany lead to my discovery of how the Hepatitis B Virus enters human liver cells, a discovery that is essential for the treatment of chronic Hepatitis B. I supervised a number of students to successful completion of their higher degrees and was known to have the 'golden touch' in the lab.

But cell lines and DNA ligations know no dinner time

It had never occurred to me that getting married and having kids would bring all this to a grinding halt. But cell lines and DNA ligations know no dinner time. They don’t know when the childcare centre closes, and they certainly don’t understand that kids need to eat early. So, the person who cooks for the children is the person whose experiments are put off until tomorrow, with the consequence that the publications are delayed, the grants don’t come, and the promotion doesn’t happen.

I had become the Executive Chef and there was no room for another infection assay in the day. My husband, on the other hand, despite contributing a lot to the overall aesthetics of the household, never cooked. He could stay back to finish that grant application, write another section of that paper and finish off that experiment. As my scientific career died, his flourished.

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The cost of cooking inequality

Both nationally and internationally, women continue to take on the majority of the cooking in households. According to the Australia Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) Time Use Survey, women accounted for 70% of food preparation time. Similarly, the American survey of the same name reported that whereas 70% of women say they cook, only 43% of men could say the same. In the UK, women are the only cooks in 55% of households, compared with 16% of men. The only slight glimmer of hope comes from a 2015 study of four Nordic countries, where men accounted for 30% of household cooks (vs 50% of women). However, even in this case, women are still cooking 1.7 meals for every meal men cook. Not exactly equality.

In jobs that require occasional or frequent overtime, such as academia, law and financial services, the gap in full-time wages between men and women is at its starkest

All this has real impacts on women’s ability to earn. In jobs that require occasional or frequent overtime, such as academia, law and financial services, the gap in full-time wages between men and women is at its starkest – 21.5% to 24.3%, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2016-17 Gender Equality Data.

This problem is particularly acute for mothers in professions that are 'unbounded' – as described by Professor Andrea O’Reilly in her book Matricentric Feminism: Theory, Activism, Practice. A similar concept was behind Rachel Power’s description of mothers in creative professions in her book The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood. In both scenarios, academics and creatives have work that does not have any natural endpoint. The very nature of the work means that drawing artificial time boundaries in order to participate in our other unbounded calling – motherhood – is detrimental to our work, and leaves us frustrated and guilty in both domains.

I wondered whether this burden applies to academic mothers outside of the life sciences. A social science academic I spoke to immediately recognised the role cooking for family has in limiting her career.

“Being an academic and cooking are basically opposites” she said. “The thought processes involved in planning meals, taking into account the food preferences of everyone, writing a shopping list, picking up ingredients – it all takes time away from the deep thinking you need to do in order to produce a meaningful piece of research. Because I have to be home to cook, and have to break off my flow of work, I have to be strategic about the research I do. The hours I spend in the kitchen and the burden of the planning around that mean that I simply don’t have time to do the kinds of projects others can achieve. I can’t do the promotional work I need to do like blog posts or interviews that would build my “brand” as an academic. I once did a sabbatical overseas and spent 6 weeks on my own. I can’t tell you how much I produced during that time. I am still profiting from the work I did back then.”

This underutilisation of women’s talents has a significant impact on both individual women and the national economy

This underutilisation of women’s talents has a significant impact on both individual women and the national economy. In 2017, the ABS estimated the underemployment of women – that is, women who work fewer than 35 hours per week, but would prefer to work more – at 11% - far higher than that for men, at 6.9%. This does not even take into account women who are in work but doing jobs less challenging than they are capable of.

A combination of maternity leave, lower wages and underemployment results in significantly reduced superannuation balances for women. In fact, this gap was a staggering $114,000 for women retiring in 2016, and across all age groups women have balances only 61% of that of men. What's more, women retiring on low superannuation balances are likely to require age pensions, in part or in full, which is a burden on tax payers, and leaves them with less money to spend on goods and services – the basis of a thriving economy.

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A woman problem? A man problem?

Research on same-sex couples reveals an interesting insight into this problem. A 2012 study investigating the division of labour in same-sex and heterosexual parents found that both gay and lesbian couples in the survey share housework and childcare more equally than heterosexual couples. This finding was replicated in a 2016 systematic review by Associate Professor Melanie Brewster from Columbia University. Furthermore, a study from Sweden revealed that although one mother tended to suffer a reduction in pay after giving birth to a child within a lesbian relationship, after five years, the birth mother’s earnings were similar to her pre-birth wage. In stark contrast, women in heterosexual relationships never recover their previous incomes.

This is not a woman problem, it is not even a man problem. It’s a heterosexual relationship problem

Thus, this is not a woman problem, it is not even a man problem. It’s a heterosexual relationship problem. Although more men are cooking now than in previous years, the statistics on sole or even shared cooking duties are depressing. Perhaps we can rely on the next generation of men to take up the cooking duties?

A recent study published in the International Journal of Technology and Design Education examined the trends in Australian student enrolments in technology and engineering. Overall participation in Food Technology courses in Australian schools rose from a low of around 8,000 students in 2000 to just under 12,000 in 2014. However, the rates of boys doing these courses has barely changed over this time. From 1% in 1992, the participation rate of boys in food technology is still only 3%. Even though the ratio of Year 12 girls to boys doing food technology was once 13 to 1, it is still 4 to 1 today, and anecdotally my peers’ daughters are far more likely to cook at home than their boys. If we don’t equip boys with the skills to put a healthy meal on the table, they’re far less likely to take up that job in a family situation.


shutterstock 1061247518Clearly, taking responsibility for being home in time to cook dinner would be of immense value, both to the wives of heterosexual men, and to society in general. Apart from equipping boys with the skills to take up meal preparation, we need to change our attitude towards staying late at work, from one of heroism, to one of shame, instead of the other way around. The pressure men feel to stay at work longer is immense, and when they see their peers being rewarded and promoted for working unhealthy hours, it would take a brave man indeed to walk out of work at 5:00.

As employers, we need to be actively encouraging fathers to leave work on time, to pick up the kids from childcare, to be a role model for their sons. We need to provide fathers with the permission they need to nurture, both psychologically and viscerally, their relationship with their children, and, by extension, allow their wives to nurture themselves and their careers.

When you think of the cost to individual women, to society and to the economy of women bearing the burden of cooking, it makes for a very expensive meal

The problems facing academic women, and all women, are of course more complex than simply cooking dinner. But the imperative to be home in time for dinner is one aspect of our gendered roles that accounts for a disproportionately large share of the struggle for equality. When you think of the cost to individual women, to society and to the economy of women bearing the burden of cooking, it makes for a very expensive meal. So expensive, in fact, that I have lost my appetite.

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  • Pam Megaw 11/07/2019 1:57pm (13 months ago)

    Thanks for this Kerry, the main comment I would make is that this also applies for couples without children - although the time restrictions are not present

  • Elaine Kennedy 05/07/2019 7:54am (13 months ago)

    Kerry, your article is ‘food for thought’ and I agree whole heartedly with you. The role as chief cook in the household is pivotal in the imbalance in the division of labour, and the consequent impact on career for mothers in heterosexual relationships. My observations of my own grown children and those of my friends thankfully give me faith in the future, and hope for the women working passionately to invest in their careers.

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