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COVID-19 is forcing women out of the workforce. Transparency and openness is the only way forward

Now is the perfect time to establish new norms at work and at home.

A mother and daughter learning remotely at home last month. Improvements in gender equality in the workplace may be another casualty of the coronavirus, as women find their place in the work force more at risk.MAGGIE SHANNON/NYT

This week, I walked with a friend who doesn’t have children. She was mad. Her Zoom calls were constantly interrupted by little kids flying in and out of the frame. Her parent colleagues were distracted by family issues all the time. They were doing less, and she was then asked to work more — as though her time was unimportant. By and large, she told me, the problem applied to her female coworkers. Imbalances in labor that existed pre-pandemic now appeared totally lopsided.

“Why can’t they just ask their partners to help them more?” she asked. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg did!”

I got her frustration: People without kids have lives, too, and she shouldn’t be treated as inferior. But family systems are ingrained over years, and they take years to untangle. Maybe her female colleagues had asked for more help but fell into old patterns. Maybe they would be distracted even with help. Maybe their spouses were amazing, but even two of the most functional partners in the world can’t effectively parent during a pandemic. Maybe they’re single. And maybe asking for “help” is just one more item on a to-do list that’s already overwhelming.

But one thing’s for sure: Moms are losing right now. Alicia Sasser Modestino, associate professor at Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, just came out with some damning research: “The Impacts of COVID-19 on Working Parents, Childcare, and Gender Equity.”


Mothers' employment is more likely to hinge on childcare availability, she found. During the pandemic, women have significantly increased time spent per week on schoolwork and playing with children, as well as cooking and cleaning. Men saw marginal increases in time spent cooking and cleaning. (Both saw increases in TV watching. No surprise there.)

This isn’t to bash on fathers. In fact, recent research from the Harvard Graduate School of Education reveals that dads are growing closer to their kids during the pandemic: 68 percent report feeling closer or much closer to their kids; 54 percent report paying more attention to their children’s feelings; and 51 percent report that they’re getting to know their children better. (No word on the moms who might never want to hear from their children again, but that’s a different story.)


Still, one in 10 working parents report losing a job or reducing hours due to childcare, and among those who became unemployed, 25 percent of women said it was due to childcare versus 13 percent of men, Modestino says. Both moms and dads have experienced high levels of stress and depression, but for women, that stress is more likely to be driven by parenting, while dads are worrying about work.

Modestino says the burden falls on employers to create working conditions that accurately reflect reality.

“Employers need to be part of this with flexibility and job stability,” she says, in addition to supports like childcare subsidies and on-site daycare.

My friend was frustrated because her colleagues were still trying to do it all and her supervisors didn’t recognize the consequences. Instead, they were just shifting work around to people who appeared more available.

Openness at work

Corporate norms are completely different now, says Tracy Burns, a mom of two and CEO of the Northeast HR Association. If you’re floundering, say so. Maybe it was taboo before. It simply cannot be anymore, and managers need to recognize that.


“COVID-19 has made us get personal really quick,” she says. “No one wants to admit they can’t do something. The willingness to be vulnerable is scary. Managers own this. They are the ones who need to build a culture of psychological safety.”

This means creating space for conversations about workload and expectations. It means eliminating low-priority tasks that suck up needless time. It means not charging along as though things are normal while creating a gulf between expectations and reality, and between parents and non-parents. It’s a big but worthwhile ask, if it means retaining talented workers.

“In the HR space, we see it as we help to coach managers: Even people who were really good managers are struggling, and bad managers are dying,” she says. That’s because nobody wants to get too personal on the job. But these days, saving face isn’t worth it. Equality depends on openness.

She urges managers to get real about limitations and employees to do the same.

“It makes us human — letting go of some of that perception of what we work so hard to build,” she says. “You cannot hide the fact that you have kids. Have a conversation. Ask for what you need. Be realistic with yourself.”

On the plus side, COVID-19 could spark a massive “mindset fix,” as Burns calls it. Some companies are embracing more flexibility and transparency. Now, they’re wondering, “Why ever go back? Culturally, it’s a large shift.”


This could lead to a broader movement toward less stigma and more vulnerability. After all, even bosses are coping with the pandemic.

“I think once this door has opened and people have had a window into people’s home lives, it’s hard to disregard that,” says Jennifer Sabatini Fraone at Boston College’s Center for Work & Family. She thinks employees will begin to press for grassroots change.

Flexibility in the form of remote work and creative hours is not the same as empathy, though, and one can’t exist without the other. It’s easy to say that a workplace is “flexible” while expecting the same level of productivity. It’s harder to recognize that the work itself has to change.

“The tone is set from the top,” Fraone says.

Openness at home

Research shows that career and life goal discussions between spouses also corresponds to greater support as a worker, says Fraone.

“For many young professionals who are juggling two careers and a family, looking at career and life decisions as a team appears to be a very important determinant of satisfaction both at work and at home,” she says.

But as anyone who’s reloaded a dishwasher knows, that’s often easier said than done. Many people are reluctant to relinquish certain tasks because their spouse might not do it right. (Guilty.) And, really, who has time to talk right now?

Both partners need to commit to having these tough conversations, says Jessica Slavin Connelly, a therapist in Cambridge, but even more important is recognizing what’s holding you back.


“What I see among clients I work with, more often than not, is they’re having the conversations. Spouses — not just husbands — are extremely receptive, and then it just doesn’t change,” she says.

Partners might ask one another to do things outside their skillset or where they don’t feel confident. Then they slip back to the comfortable status quo.

“There’s a lot of, ‘I should’ be able to do this, and then it causes avoidance,” she says. If you’re not stepping up, she says, acknowledge why. Maybe it’s a sense of incompetence or fear of being critiqued. Vocalize it.

Meanwhile, she says, the spouse who feels overburdened “has to be willing to step back” — even if it means getting out of the house while the other person takes on a new chore.

“If it’s not a safety issue, let the other person step up,” she says.

“I have worked phrases into our lives to ensure I don’t grow resentful because I do so many things that no one ever noticed," says Mona Granucci, who works full-time in health care administration and has a child in remote elementary school. "Now I’ve casually said, ‘If you’re on the way to the third floor, check and see if there’s anything you can bring with you.’ When slicing an English muffin on the counter, I inform them that the crumbs don’t magically disappear when they leave (I swear my family thinks this happens). I really needed to be honest about where I was and what help I needed,” she says.

Whether at work or at home, it’s scary to step out of familiar frameworks, to let go of pride, to insist on new realities, and to have conversations that used to be off limits. But what better time than when everything is upside down? Change usually happens incrementally, but now it’s seismic. This is a chance to rewrite old rules and try new patterns, without the same stigmas.

“We are human. Give people grace and empathy. Life is messy, and this is temporary,” says Burns, the HR executive.

COVID-19 might be short term, but the new patterns we establish now aren’t. Maybe this is our big chance.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her @kcbaskin.