The pandemic has been catastrophic for women’s careers. Women have borne the brunt of the job losses. In December 2020 alone, women lost 156 000 jobs in the USA, accounting for 100% of the jobs lost – men actually gained jobs. Some of these job losses are forced because women tend to work in the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic (e.g., retail). However, we have also seen that large numbers of women are forced into leaving the workforce to cope with the closure of schools and childcare facilitates. In the UK, mothers were 1.5 more likely than fathers to have either lost their job or quit, and 35% of working mothers have lost work or hours due to the lack of childcare in the pandemic. In essence, the pandemic has pushed women down in their careers and out of the workforce.
But is this so different from how it usually is? In our view, we are witnessing a compression of gender-based dynamics that usually take place over years. Academics interested in gender equality, like us, have long documented the so-called “leaky pipeline” to leadership: although an equal number of women and men enter into the workforce, women tend to exit in greater numbers through the course of their careers, meaning that men tend to outnumber women in leadership roles.
There are two kinds of explanations as to why this is the case: push factors (discrimination and bias that prevent women from attaining leadership roles) and pull factors (inequality in the home that pulls women away from their careers). Both push and pull factors are undoubtedly important, but the acceleration of women exiting the workforce during the pandemic has highlighted an important pull factor: entrenched inequality in the home.
In this newsletter, we want to explain why this is the case and give you some tips on how to manage it.
Your Choices Aren’t Yours Alone
We often highlight and celebrate women’s choices as a hallmark of the gender equality movement. Women can choose to have a career, choose to stay at home with their children, or choose to do both. However, women’s choices are shaped and constrained by factors outside themselves.
The first factor shaping women’s choices is gender roles. Even when both individuals in a heterosexual couple work, women often still take on the lion’s share of housework because traditional gender roles dictate that the man’s role is as a paid breadwinner and the woman’s role is in unpaid domestic labor. This trend gets worse once that couple has children; when that happens women usually take on the bulk of the unpaid domestic labor as well as the childcare. LGBTQ+ couples sometimes replicate gender roles, with one member of a same-sex couple taking on the woman-typed role. In those cases, the dynamics play out similarly for the person who has taken on the domestic role.
Women often complain about the lack of flexibility in their jobs, or their inability to balance effectively between work at home. This is because in addition to their paid jobs, it often falls to women to manage childcare, the school run, packed lunches, family meals. Gender roles can prevent women in this situation from realizing that the problem isn’t their jobs – it’s the “second shift” they have to perform at home.
The other big factor that shapes women’s career choices in the home is gender bias, and in particular, the gender pay gap. Women often earn less than men, meaning in heterosexual couples they often earn less than their partners. When faced with the chaos and stress of juggling raising children and two careers, couples often come to the conclusion that one of them should take a step back from their paid job. And when making this decision, it often feels financially “rational” for the women to step down to protect the higher household income.
However, this seemingly rational choice for the couple can be highly irrational for women as individuals. Women who take career breaks can find themselves at a meaningful disadvantage when it comes to returning to the workforce (which becomes especially acute if their relationship ends). Women on average live longer, and thus need more for their retirement. However, when they take a career break or leave the workforce altogether, they lose the benefit of employer contributions to their retirement funds and the compounding financial security that comes along with them.
1. See your work, and your time, as equal
Imagine yourself as an auditor. If you tabulate all of the work you do – planning tasks at home, doing tasks in the home, and the number of hours worked outside the home – what do you come up with for yourself, and for your partner? When we ask women do this in workshops, they often come up with lists for themselves that are multiples of the lists they make for their partners. They explain why they take on more as a matter of preference (I don’t mind doing the cooking), expertise (my partner’s just not as good at laundry), or constraint (if I don’t do it, no one will).
Here is the question we ask – what would you do if you had that time free? Are there other career opportunities, activities, hobbies, or interests, that you also prefer, could be experts at, and you wish you could do if only your workload in the home was more equal? To create change in these dynamics, women must evaluate their contributions and their time as equal to their partners’, and they must view their leisure time as equally important as their second shift in the home.
2. Negotiate with your partner
Next, ask yourself - is doing this task or making this career choice something I would do if I were the higher-earning partner whose career was prioritized? If the answer is no, then you need to re-frame the career discussion you have with your partner:
Former a truer, fuller partnership. How can you equalize domestic labor and childcare? For example, can you divide the workday into two shifts, one where you work uninterrupted while your partner fields requests from your children before you switch? In a typical couple, this means that the person in the breadwinner role will have to lean into the organizing and childcare management they haven’t developed expertise in. The early stages of this learning process can be rough on everyone, but it’s worth it if you end up with a more equal distribution of household labor.
If the discussion focuses on earning, record and quantify the unpaid labor you do in the household and factor that into the discussion about household contributions. What would it cost to outsource the work to a third party? Also, evaluate the impact on your long-term earnings, retirement accounts, and your ability to re-enter a changed workforce when your career break ends. Are you harming your long-term career goals, the viability of your career progression, and your household’s ability to retire comfortably by taking a step away now? If yes, re-evaluate how you can make it work to keep going in your career.
Be creative. If you agree to take a year out of your career now, will your partner agree to give you a year in the near future where you can focus solely on your career without any domestic load? If your dream has always been to start your own business, will your partner agree to allocate some amount of household funds and take on more childcare once your year is up to give you the time and resources to try?
3. Negotiate with your employer
Managing these demands of work and home is not just down to you and your partner – it should also involve a discussion with your employer. Historically, work has been structured in a way that assumes that the ideal worker is an individual who either has no other demands on her or his time or has a partner at home taking care of the household and childcare. This simply is not realistic anymore – for any gender! So rather than approaching your employer apologetically for having multiple demands on your time and trying to solve the situation on your own, try asking what they can do to accommodate your circumstances at home.
Ask how they can support childcare for their workers. For example, can they organize childcare or provide extra financial support for working parents? Can they offer flexible work hours for all of their employees to accommodate those with caregiving responsibilities? One of our favorite papers shows that flexible working relieves working mother’s stress while improving everybody’s performance - share this research with your employer to help make your case.
If ultimately it remains the best option for you to take a career break, remember that it is much more expensive for companies to lose existing workers and hire new ones than it is for them to retain them. Point this out to your employer and see if there is a way to retain your relationship with them. For example, rather than resigning, can you instead take an unpaid leave of absence, job share, or work part-time?
You should approach all of these discussions as a negotiation. Evaluate your goals, needs, preferences, and constraints. What are best-case and worst-case scenarios – both of which would work for you better than your current status quo? Then, ask for your ideal, best-case scenario, no matter how unrealistic you feel it might be. Research shows that the higher your initial ask, the better the agreement you will ultimately negotiate (as long as it is within reason). And remember your – equal(!) – worth.
Get in Touch
Our favorite part of teaching is the end of class, when students come to chat with us about the content, share examples from their own lives, ask questions about what they are struggling with, and challenge our thinking. We invite you to do the same – let us know how this exercise worked for you, what you are still struggling with, and what questions we can answer in our upcoming newsletters and webinars.
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