According to a study from the Centre for Economic Policy Research, before the pandemic, in households of male and female couples who work full-time, women took on around 60% of the childcare. This pandemic has only amplified the disproportionate stresses being born by women. A survey of working parents by the Boston Consulting Group found that overall parents are spending an average of 27 more hours each week on household tasks like cleaning, childcare, and remote school, but within that average, women are spending 15 more hours a week than men. And of women who have become unemployed since the pandemic began, 25% said it was due to lack of childcare. This was double the rate for men.
This month, a large share of our nation’s 56 million children have headed back to school through some form of remote learning, the burden for which will, again, fall mostly on women. It’s no wonder that a U.N. report on the pandemic’s effect on women warned that “even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back.”
But there are solutions. We can create a new normal that’s a better normal, not just for women but for everybody. Right now, businesses around the country are putting into place systems and organizational plans that will allow employees to go back to work safely, efficiently, and productively. We need to use that same kind of thinking and implement systems in the home.
After all, we’re in a time when three of our most important institutions—family, work, and school—are happening in the same physical space. Our homes have become our most important organization, but we’re not treating them that way. So we need to use the same systematic thinking and tools for our responsibilities at home as we do at work.
The demands on home life now are simply too great and too complicated to wing it, or approach each day in an ad hoc way. As women know all too well, when that’s the system, which is to say, when there is no system, it’s women who pay the highest price. That’s why at Thrive we created the Thriving Families program in partnership with Fair Play author Eve Rodsky.
It’s based on the truth that when there’s harmony at home, and responsibilities are divided up in a clear, fair, and equitable way, there’s less stress in the house—not just for women, but for everybody. That’s why the responsibility for the solution can’t just fall to women. Men, along with employers and business leaders, need to step up and support working women.
Here are some steps that couples can take to create a system of home organization that works better for everyone:
Share the mental load
Having to take on the lion’s share of scheduling, shopping, and setting up playdates can take a serious toll on health and well-being. So creating a system for these tasks to get done ensures that the mental load is shared.
Try dividing responsibilities using an ownership model. In this model, each person takes on specific tasks fully, from conception to execution to completion. As Eve Rodsky says, “Individual ownership promotes a happy partnership where both people value each other’s time equally.” One example she gives is how she and her husband share childcare responsibilities while both working remotely, by switching off every few hours. “I take the morning to write uninterrupted and then assume full ownership of all things kid-related just after lunch.”
Our culture needs to get over the idea that taking care of ourselves is selfish. This myth falls particularly hard on women, who are conditioned to feel guilty for taking time for themselves. But, in fact, when we prioritize our own well-being, we’re much more effective at taking care of others and meeting the demands of our daily lives. As they say on airplanes: Secure your own oxygen mask first before helping others.
Boundaries between our work lives and our home lives were already eroding before work and home became the same place. But that’s all the more reason why we need to be even more deliberate about rebuilding and maintaining those boundaries.
One easy microstep to try: Schedule time for yourself the same way you schedule your work life, and put it on the calendar. If you want to take a walk or work out, put it on the calendar. If you don’t have an hour, just carve out five or 10 minutes. (We call our microsteps too small to fail!) The important part is to put that marker down for yourself, and you’ll soon begin to build the muscle of prioritizing the things that make you healthier, more productive, and more joyful.
Avoid technology creep
Screens were already too much of a presence in our lives before the pandemic. And of course technology has been a lifeline for everybody this year as so much of our lives—from work to school to socializing—moved online. So it’s easy to allow technology to take over what little time we have for ourselves. But it’s important to resist that. Ask yourself: When you have a few minutes between responsibilities, are you mindlessly scrolling, or are taking that valuable time to recharge and renew yourself? This could be making a cup of tea, walking around the block, playing with a pet, or just doing a couple of minutes of deep inhales and exhales. It doesn’t matter what it is—just that you make time to give yourself a break.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
At Thrive Global, one of our core values is “compassionate directness,” which is about empowering team members to surface problems and tension points in real time. This method works just as well in the home, creating avenues for open and honest feedback, and lessening the chance that stress or grievances will be allowed to grow and become bigger problems. One way to do this is simply by making time for a weekly check-in, a time when each partner can air their thoughts on the week, both what worked and what could be improved.
Right now too many women are being forced to choose between being successful in their jobs or successful in their roles at home. But we can do better. And business leaders can help by supporting working women and recognizing the truth that, yes, we take our whole selves to work, and this has never been more true than when our work is happening at home.
Companies can help all employees nurture their mental resilience by creating a workplace where people don’t feel like they have to be “on” 24/7, where they’re able to say goodbye to their workday and get adequate sleep, and, especially for women and working mothers, where they don’t feel like they have to choose between being successful at work and happy at home. That means creating a company culture in which a commitment to well-being isn’t just a slogan, but is baked into core company values.
The pandemic has put unprecedented strains on all of us, especially women. But it also presents us with an unprecedented opportunity to create a new and better normal—one that is healthier, more productive, and more equitable.