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The home and the nation: Gender equality and nationalism

5. The site of au pairing and mixed and messy methods

6.2. The home and the nation: Gender equality and nationalism

In part four, ‘Intersectionality at work’, I discuss the way in which different categories interact and shape the practice of au pairing as we see it today. The conclusion that situated intersectionality works to conceptualise the practice of au pairing also depends on a great deal of contextualisation. Part of the relevant context, as I see it, revolves around gender equality, the home and the nation.

The literature on au pairs in Norway has a great deal to say about why host families employ au pairs. Given that there are, in fact, few ‘real’ reasons (e.g.

everyone has access to public kindergartens), other reasons might be connected to the shame in doing work that has a very low status, but such work nevertheless needs to be done by someone. It is considered shameful for middle- and upper-class women (mothers, hostesses) to have homes that do not meet the very high standards for a ‘decent’ home, yet it is also shameful for these women to admit that they do all the domestic work with little help from their male partners (Døving & Klepp, 2010). The solution might be an au pair on ‘cultural exchange’.

This is a particularly interesting situation in a society that prides itself on gender equality. The notion that increased use of au pairs can be chalked up to gender equality and, specifically, women’s (implicitly excessive) participation in the labour market, is continually reproduced in Norwegian public discourse and some scholarly literature. Sollund (2010b) argues that the au pair scheme lowers the threshold for employing domestic help in Norway, because it is practiced as domestic help yet often spoken of in quite different terms – albeit this is perhaps in the process of changing. In a conference paper I presented in 2012, I argued that the figure of the au pair has the potential to evoke several aspects of discomfort in Norway (Stubberud, 2012a). Au pairs disturb gender equality by serving as a reminder that domestic work is still done by women, they disturb the notion of ‘sameness’, in terms of class, because they are underpaid and apparently willing to do work that upper- and middle-class Norwegians do not want to do, and they disturb a notion of ‘tolerance’ and ‘sameness’ in terms of race and


ethnicity by being, or being constructed as, Filipinas who bring awareness of whiteness, privilege and global inequalities into private homes in a country that is obsessed with equality and sameness.

However, I am now less sure about this argument. Instead, I wonder whether the au pair scheme might, in fact, highlight not only continued economic inequality globally, but also increasing economic inequality in Norway. I believe Marianne Gullestad’s seminal work on sameness captures something that is extremely important for understanding Norwegian society over the past few decades (Gullestad, 2002). She describes a cultural practice of avoiding difference to produce an experience of ‘sameness’ and homogeneity, which in a Norwegian context should be understood in relation to keeping the au pair scheme as

‘cultural exchange’. The cultural practice of avoiding difference clashes with paid domestic work because it involves intimate contact between unequal people in terms of class, and different people in terms of ethnicity and race. Sometimes this difference and inequality is precisely what is purchased (Anderson, 2000, p. 7).

Yet with the au pair scheme it seems more likely that the myth of sameness and equality is part of the attraction for Norwegian employers.

This idea of sameness also relates to an image of the nation as the family/home (Collins, 1998): an intimate space that is safe, controllable, homogenous and unconflicted (Pratt, 2004, p. 76; see also Berlant, 2000, and Fortier, 2008). The au pair scheme does involve intimate contact between unequal people in terms of class, and different people in terms of race. Nevertheless, it seems that the present political climate is only part of an expression that there is indeed a move in a different direction, wherein these differences are simply something we must accept – also in Norway. Increased social difference, sped up by the political turn to the right that is currently happening in a number of European countries, also seeps into greater acceptance of economic inequality, such as greater acceptance towards displays of wealth. One such display is the employment of au pairs, particularly without the sense of shame that has been somewhat of a trademark


in Norway in relation to the employment of domestic workers (Døving & Klepp, 2010, p. 373). Employing an au pair would indeed be a mighty fine training ground for accepting inequalities in terms of class.

A notion of gender equality may also be disturbed by the presence of au pairs and domestic workers, providing that these workers count as females doing domestic work in the nation. But they do not count in the same way that way middle- and upper-class ethnic Norwegian women count. Gender intersects with class, race, ethnicity, religion, age, migrant and visa status and renders migrant domestic workers outsiders. At the same time, the presumption that ‘gender equality’ is part of ‘Norwegian culture’ perpetuates a form of conceptual nationalism that builds on colonial discourses (Svendsen, 2014, p. 50). These colonial discourses are part of what produces the racialisation and ethnicisation of paid domestic work and carework, which constructs au pairs as outsiders.

Furthermore, to frame au pairing or the outsourcing of domestic work and carework through a perspective of ‘failed gender equality’ is to ask the wrong questions. In the larger picture, the tendency to chalk the increase in domestic carework up to gender equality perpetuates a culturally embedded tendency to seek out ways to ‘blame feminism’ for everything that is problematic related to gender. This is not an issue of failed or not failed gender equality. The most important reason why some people are in the position to employ other people to do work they do not want to do themselves is that they have the money to do so.

The devaluation of some types of labour plays a part, of course, along with a number of culturally specific explanations, such as the desire for a large and well kept house and time consuming hobbies, which leave little time for the devalued domestic work and carework. Yet it seems to me that the combination of the salary level and the general standard of living in Norway is the primary reason for the increased employment of au pairs and domestic workers. Along with substantially cheaper plane tickets and the Internet, which make faraway places


imaginable destinations, colonial discourses are evoked by employers to ‘justify’

the practice.