Can Covid shift the needle on equity at home and at work?
19th November 2020
A lot has been written, since the onset of Covid-19, about how it has accelerated change. The huge shift to home working amid the pandemic is the most obvious. And it, in turn, has unfolding ramifications for urban offices and shops, the housing market, public transport services, traffic levels, and more.
But could these impacts also include speeding up progress towards true gender equality in childrearing and in the workplace too?
Over the last decade fathers have become more involved in hands-on care for their children. The notion of an egalitarian 50/50 sharing of responsibilities by parents has gained further ground since I considered ‘modern parenting’ back in 2016 as part of my doctorate research. But the concept is still bedevilled by disagreement as to what 50/50 means in practice, whether or not all caring is equal, and misperceptions between partners of each other’s share.
Let’s not forget that the cultural, emotional and personal obstacles to progress are also formidable. Mothers who work not only have to grapple with motherhood guilt but also the social pressure ‘to be there’ for younger children in particular. A further dynamic is associated with the philosophy or belief that ‘mother knows best’ – a privileged position that women may not want to give up.
Men, meanwhile, still often equate breadwinning with self-worth. So parenting needs to fit around their worktime, and they see their role in childrearing as the fun part – playing outdoors, sport and games – often leaving the domestic activities and tasks to mum.
Reinforcing this divide are the societal beliefs that women and men naturally embody these different aptitudes and roles. These social norms are changing, but up to the onset of the pandemic, this was quite slow.
Governments and many employers have done their bit to pave the way to greater equality. Rights to paid paternity leave, shared parental leave (part-paid), and to request flexible or part-time working have taken away some of the practical hurdles for fathers to be there more than ever before.
The best employers and their paternity policies go beyond the statutory standards – such as a minimum of one or two weeks’ paid paternity leave (SUEZ offers three). It means fathers can more easily bond with their new-born infant; they learn about their baby and it’s needs at the same pace as the mother. However, once they return to work, and mother is left in sole charge, she often assumes the mantle of parenting ‘expert’. The tendency thereafter is for men increasingly to abrogate childcare decisions (and responsibilities).
Sharing of a couple’s rights to paternal leave carries them closer to the egalitarian model, as men master more aspects of child rearing. Financial necessity – where men take home more pay than their working partners – is a disincentive for many. But cultural factors (including in the workplace) are still holding back the take-up of shared leave, which has been growing very slowly since its statutory introduction in April 2015.
Arguably, flexible and part-time working can go furthest in helping parents balance family life and work. UK labour surveys suggest that men may be more amenable to this opportunity: with more choosing to work part-time, 20% more male than female employees working a nine-day fortnight, rising to more than double for those on a four-and-a-half-day week. The motives for part-time or condensed working vary but one thing is clear, more men are looking for balance in their work and family life.
So, what will the impact of the pandemic be? Could it shift the needle on work/life balance and egalitarian opportunities for mothers and fathers in the workforce?
The early research was chastening. Various studies suggested that women were hit harder not just in terms of jobs lost, but also the burden of multi-tasking – working from home while also doing the chores, cooking and childcare, including home schooling.
There is reason to hope, however, that the experience is triggering constructive conversations in households that could spur attitudinal change. A US study found that as men during the pandemic took on more housework (even if it was short of the 50% threshold), working women were reporting greater job satisfaction and productivity. This is in line with previous research indicating that increasing men’s share of unpaid household labour would promote gender equity.
By forcing men to juggle paid and unpaid work, the pandemic and widespread working from home can shift social and gender norms. We don’t know yet how short or long-term the new patterns of working will be. Nor how men will respond to their closer experience of the highs and lows of childrearing and domestic routines.
However, as employers, we have an important part to play in encouraging this conversation and facilitating change where our people want it.
Equal rights are not just about allowing women the choice of having a career. It’s right for men to want a healthier work/life balance too.
In male-dominated organisations, senior leaders need to lead – both by communicating clearly that there’s no stigma in putting family first, and by example, flexing their own family rights too.
In the meantime, men who fear being ridiculed by colleagues for wanting to spend more time with their families or undertake a larger part of childrearing, or who fear it may impact their career prospects, need to take note from women who have faced this. For decades, working mothers have had to run the gauntlet of disapproval from organisations who aren’t supportive of their dual responsibilities as employees and mothers, from ‘fulltime’ homemakers who aren’t supportive of their choice to work and perhaps their wider family too as well as the emotional conflict and motherhood guilt.
The more we facilitate the work/life balance of our male employees and normalise shared childrearing the easier it will become for women to play their full role in the workforce too.
It should be noted that this blog focuses on the gender issues associated with families parented by a male and female in order to discuss the specific issues related to that family configuration. This is not intended to imply a preference for one family configuration over another. In reality, the situation is more dynamic with same gender and single parent families forming a large and positive part of the fabric of a positive, diverse and inclusive society.
 Leghorn, Tracey (2016), The best of both worlds?: Combining work and motherhood on a 24/7 planet.https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.718783