Working for Free Is Pretty Funny, Right?

Are you laughing yet?

Woman caring for an infant. Infant is wearing silly glasses and laughing.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Remember that hilarious joke about the woman who worked around the clock for no pay? Here’s the setup: She has a paid job and then … let’s say she has a baby. A year later, her mom falls ill. Now, our hypothetical protagonist has to leave said job because it’s more expensive for her to pay for child care and elder care than it is for her to just stay home and work around the clock. On some days, she loves that she gets so much time to spend with the people she loves most in the world. On other days, when she’s covered in various forms of bodily fluid and operating on two hours of sleep, she feels like running an Ironman would be relaxing.

Wait, you’re not laughing yet? Of course, the issue of unpaid care work is one that usually doesn’t get too many chuckles. We talk about it either as an unfair burden—a responsibility that falls disproportionately to women—or a joyous role to be celebrated.

So today, we’re trying something different. As journalists and researchers at the Global Gender Parity Initiative, we’ve spent the past few years telling the story of unpaid work in many creative ways to different audiences. Our goal: trying to spread awareness of an issue that seems, on its surface, to be pretty wonky and detached from the lives of regular people. We argued that building awareness of work that’s too often invisible, uncounted, and unmeasured was the first step to valuing it.

And yet, awareness is just the beginning. It’s also about seeing the ubiquity of unpaid care work in our society—how it can intersect with seemingly unrelated issues, and how intertwined it is with all of our lives. After all, each of us has, at some point, either given or received care.

Around the world, most is done by women and girls, which means that they have less time for things like paid work, education, sleep, and leisure. Think: moms washing the dishes while dads find time for a little soccer match. Even though it undergirds our entire economy, we don’t value or measure it like we do forms of formal economic work—and so mostly women remain without financial compensation and social recognition for the hard and important work that they do. Labor economists have been calling out this arguably sexist system for years.

But what they have not been doing is making jokes about it. And yet, when it comes to changing human behavior—and changing culture—humor is a powerful tool.

That’s something our partners at the Center for Media & Social Impact (based at American University’s School of Communication) and IMPROVe, the creative comedy production lab of CMSI’s the Laughter Effect project, understand deeply. They’ve done the research on the influence comedy can have when it comes to serious social issues and have found that comedy about tough topics can work on five main levels: 1) Attracting attention, 2) persuading through emotion (i.e., making people care), 3) offering a bridge into complex social issues, 4) dismantling social barriers, and 5) encouraging sharing. (If you want to learn more about how and why comedy can be a social change agent, check out their report—“The Laughter Effect.”)

On International Women’s Day (Thursday, in case you were wondering), there’s a lot to celebrate and a lot to freak out about. Arguably, there is also a lot to laugh about—though often through some tears! Watch the video, and then send us your best unpaid care work jokes, moments, and stories, using the hashtag #ShowUsTheWork.