Recently, a female friend without kids complained about how much extra work she’d been doing for moms at her company. She, meanwhile, felt treated as a second-class citizen without obligations of her own.
There’s nothing new about workplace tensions between parents and their co-workers who don’t have small children. But Zoom meetings are providing fresh ammunition for the fight. My friend could see that her colleagues “clearly aren’t asking their spouses to pick up any slack,” she fumed. “Would they be more willing to reexamine and push for equitable treatment at home if they understood they were letting others down?”
Ouch. The marital house of cards used to be mostly invisible to colleagues, but now it’s on screen for all to observe — and judge. We see kids flailing in the background of video calls, the literal and figurative dirty laundry, the accidental screen shares with two dozen open tabs. It seemed to my friend that in homes where either mom or dad could come to the rescue, the moms typically ended up dealing with the chaos.
As a working mother myself, I think it’s too easy to make assumptions about how a home operates based on what’s visible in the Zoom window. Just because a woman isn’t on camera asking her spouse to make lunch for the kids or appears flustered during a meeting, doesn’t mean she isn’t advocating for fairness.
And yet, familiar patterns persist. Scientific survey, moms: Raise your hand if you’re the one who has always fielded the school e-mails, made the doctor’s appointments, configured the playdates, remembered the Google password, uploaded the camp forms, and carried the overall psychic burden of keeping everyone alive.
And the pandemic is making things worse. Since its start, men and women have both increased their time spent on child care and household work, according to a May survey by Boston Consulting Group on COVID-19 and working parents. But women’s investment of time and effort increased more than men’s. They currently spend 15 more hours on domestic labor each week, according to the survey. Half of respondents feel their performance at work declined because of these responsibilities.
Men have good intentions — it’s the follow-through that’s the problem. A 2019 study done by Boston College’s Center for Work & Family on new fathers showed that the vast majority of men — 76 percent — agree that they should provide equal amounts of care to children. And yet 54 percent of men say that women actually provide more. (Only 2 percent of men report that they do more caregiving than their partner.)
The fallout of all of this is devastating. New data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal that the number of women in the labor force declined by more than 2.2 million between February and October.
So what’s going wrong, and how can we fix it?
Sometimes it’s pure math: In Massachusetts, women make 83 cents for every dollar men do, on average. So it can seem financially riskier for the higher earner, often a man, to ask for time off, to end the call early, to multitask. And if someone is going to leave a job to deal with remote schooling and other responsibilities — a decision most single-parent households don’t have the luxury to make, to be clear — it’s usually going to be the person who makes less money.
But there’s something even more pernicious going on, too. “I think the bottom line here is that people are regressing back to the patterns of old,” says Brad Harrington, executive director of BC’s Center for Work & Family, who studies fathers in the workplace. Our deeply ingrained social norms around traditional gender roles still dictate that family should come first for women and work should come first for men. And those norms affect how men and women are judged. If a woman takes time off to care for kids, “she might be seen as a bad worker but a good woman,” Harrington says, “but if a man does it, he’s [seen as] a bad worker and a marginal man.”
Corporate cultures that cling to outdated stereotypes fuel this lopsidedness. Many workplaces (and school systems — please, copy both parents!) still assume men have spouses who will deal with domestic duties. For example, Harrington’s research has shown that millennial fathers are “more susceptible to the cultural message they get from their workplace.”
About those messages: Shifting work-life balance from slogan to mandate must come from the top. It needs to originate with managers willing to understand that during a pandemic, productivity has to lessen. It comes from banishing the notion that career is identity and from supervisors who have the foresight and empathy to model flexibility and openness in their own management styles.
The fact is, American culture is inhospitable to American families, and we’ll continue wringing our hands about gender inequality — in the workplace and at home — until we change the culture that devalues families while also idealizing them.
On a smaller scale, we need to recalibrate work’s importance in our lives right now. For working fathers, this means a willingness to appear vulnerable, a willingness to push back and log off early, and a willingness to share more of the household work to support working mothers in their careers — and in their relationships with co-workers, for that matter. In other words, it means that now is the time for men to step up and take the same risks that women have been taking for generations, when daring to demand office space to breast-feed or risking the wrath of a boss to leave at 4:30 for day care pickup.
“The only way things are really going to change is if men show the courage to say, ‘This is a shared proposition,’” Harrington says.
Sure, these changes would force us to reimagine personal and professional culture and disrupt ingrained norms. Some might call it unthinkable. But so is the mass exodus of more than 2.2 million women from the workforce.