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The Highs and Lows of the COVID-19 Pandemic for Working Parents, and the Implications for the Future of Work
The COVID-19 pandemic radically changed both the corporate workplace and our home life overnight. For employees with the luxury of telecommuting, the initial phase of the pandemic had highs and lows. Working from home and the absence of a long commute provided the opportunity to be more productive than before.
However, for many, the “home” office was not a place of quiet isolation. It was a place where work and home life were no longer balanced, but in direct overlap. The significant increase in unpaid labor inside the home blurred the lines between paid and unpaid household labor. COVID-19 hit women particularly hard in terms of job losses, increased care responsibilities at home, and heavy representation among low-wage workers on the front lines.
To provide insight into these changes, our research team at the Center for Women in Business and the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University administered a real-time survey in May, at the height of the pandemic’s lockdown. The study consisted of a web-based survey with a sample population of over 1500 adults. Men reported their contribution to unpaid household labor during the pandemic to be 48% of all the work and women reported their contribution to be 66%.
What is interesting is that men perceived their female partner’s contribution to be 45% and women perceived their male partner’s contribution to be 29%, with the remainder of the work performed by other household members. These findings reflect an inequality in the gendered distribution of housework between men and women, but also a surprising difference in how both genders (mis)perceive who contributes more to household labor, consistent with prior research.
Prior to the pandemic, the percent of men who provided at least five daily hours of active childcare was 15%, but increased to 29% during the pandemic. For women, this percentage was 23% prior to the pandemic and increased to 37% during the pandemic.
The percent of men who devoted at least five hours per day to household chores increased from 11% prior to the pandemic to 20% during the pandemic lockdown. For women, the percentage contributing at least five hours per day to household chores increased from 15% prior to 28% during the pandemic.
What was unexpected is that men’s newfound household contributions had an impact on women’s careers. While previous research suggests that progress toward gender equity may be accelerated by an increase in men’s participation in unpaid household labor, our research suggests it may have already enhanced productivity and satisfaction for working women.
Our analysis shows that 30% of working parents reported an increase in productivity after the pandemic hit, versus 21% of people without children. Parents also reported higher job satisfaction after the pandemic hit compared to people without children (24% versus 13%).
This increase is partly due to men’s growing contribution to unpaid labor in the home: Our multivariable regressions indicate that men’s increased contribution to caring labor is a positive and statistically significant determinant of both women’s work productivity and job satisfaction. However, women’s increased contributions to unpaid labor during the pandemic did not impact men’s work productivity and satisfaction.
The increase in men’s contributions to household labor holds hidden benefits. With more fathers engaged in child care, the social norms around what constitutes an ideal worker may change and de-stigmatize the implicit bias that limits women’s opportunities for career advancement. The pandemic has leveled the playing field when it comes to work-life balance.
Both men and women, and all levels of the workforce (from junior staff to C-suite executives), have had to embrace the juggle. The shame and fear of the potentially negative impact that can come from personal lives infiltrating work lives dissipated. We were all in the same boat as our work, childcare, household chores, and even homeschooling was broadcast straight into every virtual boardroom.
The good news is that the new intersection of work and home life is poised to shift the descriptive norm (we are all in it together), and the new descriptive norm could change the injunctive norm (what we value). The end result is a weakening of traditional gender norms. Recent statistical models have corroborated this prediction.
Another result of the pandemic lockdown may be the dissipation of the “mommy track” stigma, as women and men feel less ashamed of creating work and home boundaries. Senior management (still predominantly held by men) may drop their preconceptions of diversity and inclusion support programs as signals that women are more committed to their families than the workplace. These potential long-term changes result from the fact that the pandemic has forced men to deal with juggling their own paid and unpaid work.
The onus now falls to businesses and organizations to take advantage of weakening gender norms and further eliminate counterproductive stigmas and support working parents. Here are some approaches.
1) Senior leadership should take the mask off work-life overlap.
Senior management should communicate to employees that the company supports leave programs. This should include the message that senior management members themselves have experienced the overlap of work and home life in the same physical space at the same time, and that this has put a strain on them, as well.
This messaging is particularly important considering that both genders feel stigmatized for utilizing programs that support leave for unpaid care work.
2) Senior leadership should be encouraged to take advantage of leave programs.
Given that senior leadership plays a critical role in modeling and communicating company values, a program that encourages leadership to utilize employee support programs themselves can help to de-stigmatize family-friendly policies for other employees and generate a rise in acceptance of these policies.
3) Firms should encourage all employees, both men and women at all levels, to take advantage of employee resource groups (ERGs) and business resource groups (BRGs).
Firms should encourage male allies to participate in women’s ERGs and BRGs.
Men’s participations in these groups could go a long way in normalizing the “mommy track” because men have the potential to contribute to the conversation on the struggle for balance.
4) Firms should encourage their partners and suppliers to create similar practices to support their workers.
In order to cultivate workplaces with policies that are sustainable for working parents, family-friendly practices must be supported and implemented by all players, including but not limited to key stakeholders, leadership, employees, and clients.
Kristina Durante is the Associate Professor of Marketing and PhD Program Coordinator at Rutgers Business School.