The other day I needed to make a doctor’s appointment (is anyone else having terrible allergies this year?). When I called, the call center agent went through the normal process of updating my patient record. At one point, she asked me, “Do you work outside the home?” My first thought was, “I don’t know exactly how to answer that.” My second was, “What a dumb question.” Here are a few reasons I think this question has far outlived its usefulness.
It’s a Relic of Another Time
I’ve noticed that my husband is not asked this question. Oh sure, people with whom he is going to develop a financial relationship want to know if he has a job, but they usually just ask “what do you do?”. There is a reason the question is asked this way of women, of course. Once, people assumed men had paid jobs and women did not. As more and more women entered the workplace, it became necessary to determine whether or not a woman was employed. The simple question, “Do you work?” was considered to be offensive to and by women who did not have paying jobs, but certainly worked very hard to raise children and make a home. Thus, “Do you work outside the home?” was born.
I get it and maybe it was a good approach – in the 70′s. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census and polling data, 40% American households with children under age 18 now include a mother who is either the sole or primary earner for her family.
That share was just 11% in 1960. Things have changed since then.
- A person’s employment status is not related to their gender
- Pretty much everyone who has one does “inside the home” work. It, also, is not gender related. Come to think of it, people with full time jobs in factories and offices do “inside the home” work too. It’s up to the people who live in the home to divide up housework and child care responsibilities. They may use employment status and/or gender in that calculation, or not
- Keeping a house and raising children are definitely, totally, work. Really important and difficult work, but it is sometimes necessary to inquire about work that is done in exchange for money. The question isn’t about your value. We all know that a job’s compensation rate has little association with it’s value to society
It Isn’t What You Really Want to Know
The reason I didn’t know exactly how to answer the question is that I don’t usually work “outside the home.” I work at home. (Sometimes next to the pool, which is “outside,” but that’s besides the point.) Of course, that’s not what the agent really wanted to know. She doesn’t care where I do my job, she wanted to know if I have paid employment. The answer to that is yes. Had I answered her question technically and said “No, I don’t work outside the home,” I would have ignored the spirit of the question. Follow me? Remote and flexible work arrangements are becoming ever more popular with 13.44 million Americans working (for money) from home, according to the Census Bureau. The question makes even less sense when you add the between 9 and 15 million Americans who are self employed. Many of them work at home. How would they answer the question, I wonder? It is simply no longer reasonable to assume that if someone has a job they go to an office to do their work.
Another reason the question is silly is that the answer may change depending on the circumstances. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not define full-time employment or part-time employment. This is a matter generally left to the employer. Most companies require from 30–35 or 40 hours per week to be defined as full-time and therefore eligible for benefits. So, does that mean, if I work for money, 40 hours a week, I can’t also be a full-time mom and/or wife? Do I have to choose one hat or the other? On the day when my daughter called to say she’d had a disturbing phone call and I ran out of the management meeting to go home, was I a part-time employee or a part-time mom? When my husband had surgery and I worked on my laptop in the waiting room, was I a part-time employee or a part-time wife? What about the day I was on vacation, but an unexpected technical problem meant I really needed to work? Was I working inside or outside the home? I really couldn’t tell you and I don’t really care. What needs doing gets done. We are perfectly capable of doing more than one thing at a time. I’m not some crazy lady. This is normal. It isn’t about “super-mom” or “trying to have it all,” it’s just modern life for both women and men.
Ask a Better Question Instead
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this is a tricky topic. It touches on two things Americans really struggle to discuss, especially when they go together, gender roles and money. But there’s got to be a better way. For business relationships, like the one with my doctor, I favor the simple, direct question, “Are you employed?” Pretty much everyone understands what this means and can answer the question succinctly. In today’s turbulent economy, “What is your current employment status?” would also be fine. It is possible that my doctor might ask me a question like this for medical, rather than financial reasons. Perhaps she wants to know if I might be suffering from asbestos exposure or carpel-tunnel syndrome. In that case, “What is your occupation?” would work even better. ”Mom,” would provide as much insight as “Ice Road Trucker.” Meeting someone at a cocktail party is a little bit trickier. “Are you employed?” sounds a bit crass in that situation, but “Do you work outside the home?” is still silly. ”Tell me about yourself,” will likely get you the answer you are looking for and perhaps something even more interesting.
There’s no doubt that our culture is changing quickly and it can be hard to keep up, but living in the modern world means adapting to the new and letting go of the old. It’s way past time to let go of, “Do you work outside the home?”