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Women are feeling the crunch of working from home more than men. Here’s why

Mothers who work from home can experience more stress than fathers.
Mothers who work from home can experience more stress than fathers.Adobe Stock/IRStone - stock.adobe.com

Isabel Sorice and her husband have both been working from their Melrose home during the pandemic, but she is the go-to parent.

“Everything is like: ‘Mom?’ ‘Where’s Mom?’ ‘Can I, Mom?’ ” said Sorice, a kindergarten teacher, echoing their younger son’s questions. “You have another parent, you know. And my husband could be right next to me and I’m still the target.”

It’s not her imagination — or yours. A paper released Tuesday by the Council on Contemporary Families affirms the work-life balance for many women has crumbled. As mothers bear the brunt of the workload in homes they no longer leave for paying work, a gender gap has emerged in negative feelings associated with working from home, the study finds.

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Ultimately, the home office’s frequent interruptions — and mothers’ inability to tune them out — could erode long-term progress toward gender equality, the study concludes.

“Given the intense socialization of women into not being able to ignore perceived demands of children and dust bunnies alike — and the outright shaming they often experience when they do ignore them — there may be some benefits to working outside the home for women,” the authors wrote. “By contrast, given their socialization to be able to ignore the demands of children, there may be some benefits to working inside the home for men.”

The study, currently under review for publication, was conducted by Yale University sociologists Thomas Lyttelton and Emma Zang, and Kelly Musick, director of the Cornell Population Center at Cornell University.

The researchers tapped two sets of data — pre-pandemic time-use data and a COVID impact survey conducted in April and May — to examine the links between working from home and gender inequality, and any negative feelings associated with it.

Mothers working from home during April and May reported feeling anxious, depressed, and lonely at significantly higher rates than fathers, who actually experienced less anxiety when working from home. Men, conversely, reported much higher levels of hopelessness when they were unemployed.

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“What struck me the most is women across all situations are really worse off during the pandemic,” said Zang, an assistant professor of sociology at Yale. Employment data separately revealed that women lost more jobs early in the pandemic than men, she noted. “Our paper further shows that even if they didn’t lose their jobs and they have the privilege of working from home, they are affected more emotionally compared to men.”

The paper builds on several other recent analyses that legitimized the grievances of many mothers early in the pandemic. A poll by Morning Consult for The New York Times released in May found that home schooling necessitated by coronavirus lockdowns was being handled disproportionately by women. Another survey released that month by the Council on Contemporary Families found the same but also showed an increase in the percentage of parents sharing housework equally since the start of the pandemic and a rise in the percentage who share child care equally.

The latest study found that, before the pandemic, fathers who regularly telecommuted spent more time on child care than those who worked outside the home. Fathers who worked from home effectively closed the gender gap by spending 67 more minutes caring for children on the days they exclusively worked from home than on the days they worked exclusively from the workplace. (The authors did not have similar time-use data during the pandemic for comparison.)

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Men’s increased workload with children didn’t carry over to housework, the authors found. Only mothers increased their housework on days they worked from home — by 49 minutes.

But women also spent more of their work time with their children — a measure that the authors theorize increases stress and lessens productivity.

Fathers who worked from home reported that their children were present during work for an average of 21 minutes a day — mothers, 54 minutes per day.

“When people are forced to juggle their attention between children and work, they experience a form of work-family conflict that is absent in work settings separate from the home – one that leaves parents unable to give either work or home life their full attention,” the paper states.

That has been obvious to mothers like Kristyn Ferguson, who brought her job as a bank’s in-house counsel into her family’s Potomac, Md., house, where her husband had long been working. Their 3-year-old and 6-year-old are trained to steer clear of Daddy’s office — “They know not to bother him,” Ferguson said — but Ferguson had been readily available, on maternity leave with a third baby, until June.

“It was a very hard adjustment for them not to be able to come to me,” Ferguson said. “I can’t help them with a million things every day.”

And even though she has extra sets of hands during the day — both grandmothers trade off watching the children — Ferguson feels pressure to intervene.

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“If I hear my mother-in-law struggling or my mom struggling or the kids fighting, I’ll feel this need to get up and step in,” she said. “I’m more attuned to what’s going on. . . . But if my husband’s on a call, he is laser-focused.”

Sorice, the teacher from Melrose, noted that when she started teaching kindergarten from home, she also had to oversee her 10-year-old’s home schooling. Her husband is very supportive, but she’s the one who plans meals and keeps track of the boys’ activities. And as the pandemic forced them indoors, all that time in the house intensified her need to keep the house orderly. “I just became like a cleaning lady,” she said.

“This is not what I bargained for,” said Sorice. “I think it’s more stressful for women.”

All those mothers’ individual work-life conflicts have broad consequences for women in the labor market, as children infringe on the productivity of working time more for mothers than for fathers, the authors state.

That steady drip of lost time adds up, the researchers estimated, using a calculation that assigns median earnings to average changes in work hours associated with housework. A woman who works from home one day a week could lose $660 in annual earnings, they estimate; someone who works from home four days a week could lose $2,638 a year.

The Council on Contemporary Families, based at the University of Texas at Austin, is a nonprofit organization of family researchers and practitioners that seeks to further an understanding of how families are changing.

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Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert