Stephanie Tang Waldrop

Commentary by Heidi Biggs

Gender equity may be a feminist anthem, but achieving it remains difficult due to the many invisible, compounding factors to equality that go unmeasured, ‘normalized’, or hard to describe. One of these factors is the invisible cognitive labor women do while taking care of a family, which Stephanie Waldrop de-invisibilizes in her thesis project. Stephanie became familiar with the term cognitive labor through the research of Allison Daminger, a PhD candidate in sociology at Harvard who studies gendered labor in the home. Cognitive labor, according to Daminger, is the outsized mental work that women do of worrying, remembering, and planning details as part of a family. A mother of two and member of a partnership, Stephanie could relate to the under-acknowledged mental labor of motherhood. For this reason, her research seeks to understand how this labor might be discussed, materialized, and unpacked by laypeople and couples who struggle with sharing and managing the inundation of mental tasks family life requires on a daily basis. 

Through a combination of surveys, interviews, diary studies, and personal explorations, Stephanie found that while performing high levels of cognitive labor was a near-universal experience among participants, the impacts of constant cognitive labor on families and partnerships are often avoided or under-discussed between partners. One of the main goals of her thesis is to create easy and accessible tools to introduce the term cognitive labor to lay audiences in ways that make discussing it approachable and productive. In contrast to the gendered critiques offered by Daminger, Waldrop was more interested in finding avenues for neutral ground and open-ended discussion between partners because household labor is often surrounded by both insecurity “am I doing enough?” and resentment “I do too much!” Waldrop created tools for discussion and learning that embrace her own view that, while there is no perfect division of cognitive labor, discussion can lead to acknowledgment of the labor being done, which goes a long way toward happier relationships. 

Her final research product, a website, offers a widely accessible platform for building understanding around cognitive load at multiple levels. It offers playful interactions that might help a couple understand the term and visualize the different types of cognitive labor they might be doing. On the other hand, it presents her empirical research alongside expert interviews about cognitive labor which add context to her findings. This research product democratizes scholarship in a very tangible and approachable way — something that perhaps could be the research product of more academic research! It had me thinking, “this is the dream of experimental hypertexts from the 1990s elevated in the 2020s.” The approachability and range of information on the website make it a great entry point for conversations about and deeper understanding of cognitive labor; hopefully, it becomes a normal part of conversations in partnered life over time!