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What the American Time Use Survey can teach leaders about the female workforce

The former director of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor says that times of radical turmoil are also times for radical opportunities. And one place that definitely needs radical change is the world of work for women.

What the American Time Use Survey can teach leaders about the female workforce
[Photo: nensuria/iStock]
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On July 22, 2021, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics released the results of the 2020 American Time Use Survey (ATUS), an annual study of how the people of the U.S. spend their time. While the study was paused for several months between March and May of 2020, it is our first real look at what changed inside our lives during the COVID pandemic.

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Those of us who work towards gender equity and/or equality (I use both words to try and avoid immediately raising flags for any particular group) have long used the ATUS as documentation about how different working women’s lives can be from those of men. We know that women consistently spend more time on household and caregiving activities than do men. Our questions are now about what really changed during COVID, particularly for working women and their families.

On average, we all did a little more sleeping and a little less grooming. Men did increase their time spent on household activities, particularly around housework and childcare. The challenges for working women, however, continue in that their time spent on these household activities also increased, sometimes less than for men, but sometimes more. Not surprisingly, the largest changes had to do with caregiving. For women, the average hours per day spent caring for and helping household members went from 1.99 in 2019 to 2.41 in 2020. For men, their care activities went from 1.38 to 1.73 hours. And we all expected that homeschooling was going to make a big difference. Dads helped, yet not as much. For moms, the time spent doing education-related activities with their children more than doubled between 2019 and 2020 (from 1.01 hours per day to 2.41). The increase for men was .96 to 1.65 average hours per day. While a difference of minutes here and there may not sound substantial, it adds up quickly. These numbers help us consider what happened over the past year. The question currently is, what happens now?

COVID was brutal and changed most of our lives. Times of turmoil and change are times of opportunity. Times of radical turmoil are also times for radical opportunities. And one place that definitely needs radical change is the world of work for women. This world has evolved, to some degree, over many generations. Corporate life has changed some over the past few decades, but not as much or in ways that are needed. The world of work still substantially relies on a model that William Whyte described in his 1956 sociological classic, The Organization Man. In his foreword to the 2002 reissue of that book, Joe Nocera wrote about Whyte’s view that corporations had it “exactly backward” in trying to eliminate “the messiness of human interaction.” Whyte emphatically reports Work as Dominant: no compartmentalization of life. Everything else is subordinate to work and ultimately evaluated in terms of how it fits in with work. Although the title of the book is The Organization Man, women are certainly included. They are the wives. (But that’s a different op-ed.)

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The challenge that remains is to recraft an approach to working that recognizes—and connects with—the other areas of our lives in a positive way. Our lives, including work, are messy. Not only messy, but different, particularly in the ways in which women enter the professional workforce, their experiences while there, and the rewards they take away. And not only different but also often lesser than those of many men in the workforce.

In fact, during my term in the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, we identified 15 potential influences that could drive those differences. We made a wall-size graphic of it to continually keep these key issues front and center. However, the number 15 is not meant to be definitive or set in stone. As a team, the Women’s Bureau staff occasionally proposed additions or combinations. We also looked at how they intersected with each other. Five of them applied to the pipeline regarding how women enter the workforce. Another five focused on labor force attachment mostly concerning household and family. The remaining five centered on wages and benefits.

Given these existing differences, I’ve always been puzzled by conclusions drawn by some that attention is no longer needed on workforce issues for women. For instance, the Heritage Foundation has at least twice concluded that the Women’s Bureau had become redundant and obsolete because the challenges that women face in working are the same challenges faced by all workers (read men). That is a head-scratcher to think that mere similar participation numbers meant similar experiences and outcomes.

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Women’s lives are often driven by trying to fit the various milestones of their personal lives (marriage, children, aging parents, etc.) into organizational work that has been structured to support types of lives for women, and men, that no longer exist. Having and then raising children is complicated, demanding, and expensive. And women’s financial lives, including their earnings potential, are generally considered a private matter, with discussions scarcely recognizing the complexity of their lives. Yet the financial dimension is an integral part of who women are and what they are trying to achieve both personally and professionally. In other words, each of these areas, professional, personal and financial, has some degree of research behind it as a single topic, yet almost nothing exists today to recognize and help us better understand this trichotomy of female lives as a whole.

Take, for example, a professional woman who is reconsidering her future post COVID and decides on a career pivot that allows her more home/work coherency. She has two children in pre-school and an infant. She is extremely fortunate in that she can currently afford in-home childcare, and that added expense has to play into her employment decisions. She knows that she will have to earn compensation that will continue to contribute to the support of her family. She also knows that given the arrival of the baby; they are going to need more room, requiring a new house near schooling for their other children.

None of these decisions can stand separate from the others. Again, this is an exceptional case given the ability to even afford and find childcare. Her current employer’s perspective may be that they are seeing a talented employee bailing because she doesn’t see her life fitting with their company’s approach to work. But they also recognize the cost of recruiting and training a new employee. Another employer may see the possibility of acquiring new talent, yet only if they can structure a work role that meets the needs of an actual, real, woman with a complex life.

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The conversations about working women are too often homogenized or make assumptions that all working women have similar needs, experiences, and expectations. This is far from true. My example above was very narrow, intentionally focusing on a corporate professional woman. But I certainly recognize that not all working women have the same situation or needs. Certainly, the myriad ways in which those 15 women’s work-life influences intersect result in a wide range of outcomes.

As a military spouse, when my husband was on active duty, I was fortunate enough to be able to go to school, more than once. For many military spouses (92% of which are women), perhaps especially women in the professions, the moving that goes along with military life can be devasting to building a resume, let alone a career.

There are a number of reports, white papers, ponderings, and pontifications coming out on the challenges of returning to a world of work. Yet most of them, with the exception of the virtual versus brick-and-mortar question, are thinking of it in terms of returning to the pre-COVID status quo. This would be a missed opportunity of epic proportions.

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With the exception of the workforce challenges in the food and hospitality industry, much of the rest of the focus is addressed to women working for large corporations. Let’s remember that of the slightly more than 6 million employer businesses in the United States, only about 20,000 or less than 1% of all U.S. businesses are what we’d consider “big businesses” with 500 or more employees. True, they do employ slightly more than half of the workforce. But there is almost half that they do not employ.

Yet these large corporations have the leading role in defining what constitutes a “good job” in three main ways. Why? First, and probably foremost, they have the motivation to get back to a system that largely works for them. Who wouldn’t want employees who always considered work first? Second, they have the resources to have it their way. And third, they have the loudest voice. We largely see and hear the stories of “big business” in the media. As such, they become the role model for the other 99% of U.S. businesses that are looking for guidance on how to attract and retain talent.

It’s about time to reconsider how we work together inside and across companies in a way that works well for women and their families, yet also well for employers. After all, businesses need to thrive to support these new ways of working. Yet, it’s not just businesses that need to be concerned. Our multi-layered governments are looking at lives and labor in several different ways through a variety of proposals, yet the challenge remains to see how all our efforts work together for the needed change. This is a call to action for everyone at all levels to pay attention, think about what would make a difference in your own life, and get vocal.

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And by the way, all this is better for men, too. On a personal note, our youngest son, a recent new dad, is emphatic that he was going to craft his work to fit his life, not the other way around. Onward.


Patricia Greene, PhD is the former director of the Women’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor, and professor emerita of Babson College.