Like many working professionals, I’ve spent the better part of the past year and a half working remotely. And over that period, I’ve realized how many remote meeting standards amplify the bias against working mothers. Just a few weeks ago, for example, I was in a Zoom meeting when one of the members—a notably single, child-free white man—suddenly interrupted the conversation to chastise two women whose children were fussing in the background.
Afterward, an email circulated calling for new meeting standards to minimize distractions and replicate an in-person workplace. Dumbfounded, I pushed back. In the age of remote work, background noise is to be expected—whether it’s a barking dog, a honking car, or a crying baby. But the only distractions cited in this email related to childcare. What was notably absent was mention of men taking calls while they sped down a noisy freeway (a habit I’ve observed on repeated occasions).
Why couldn’t we, as a group, do more to accommodate these women instead of further stigmatizing them? The pandemic has highlighted the messy reality of life as a working mom. But too often, women are told to either buck up or get out. Under immense pressure, many are taking the second route: A 2020 McKinsey report found that one-third of working moms were contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely. The ironic part of all this? When I suggested the disgruntled man leave the group if it wasn’t meeting his standards—the same suggestion he’d made to these women—he was offended.
In the past, women’s contributions to the care economy went unnoticed because there was a dividing line between our professional and personal lives. Thanks to the shift to remote work, we’re seeing these events in real time on Zoom—to believe we can go back to business as usual is not helpful or realistic. Here’s what we need to do instead:
Acknowledge the inequity
Women were already spending three times as many hours performing household chores as men before the pandemic, but COVID-19 laid bare the unequal division of unpaid labor. Since the onset of COVID-19, women have spent an extra 5.2 hours a week doing unpaid care work; men have added only 3.5 hours a week.
On average, women spend 30 or more hours a week caring for children and loved ones without compensation. In addition to working and raising children, moms keep track of everything from permission slips and play dates to monthly bills. This isn’t something they do out of love alone—though there’s a lot of that. These tasks fall on women because of the implicit bias in our gender perceptions.
The first step of fixing a problem is acknowledging it. We need to spend more time educating our coworkers about the burden of care work that women shoulder.
These conversations won’t always be easy: When I confronted my colleague about his sexist meeting standards, he didn’t want to talk to me or reflect on his privilege. Despite this challenge, these conversations are vital to long-term workplace progress.
Encourage and accommodate care work
Women don’t want to be interrupted while working, but a 2020 poll found that kids interrupt their telecommuting parents about 25 times a week. We must stop viewing this as a woman’s problem. Empathy is good, but creative problem-solving is better.
The most helpful thing we can do is develop policies and employee benefits that view the care economy as a competitive advantage. We should proactively address the needs of employees who find themselves caring for children, parents, or other loved ones. This means acknowledging that domestic care can and will happen on Zoom calls. It’s not unprofessional to soothe a tearful toddler, for example.
Allow coworkers to join Zoom meetings by phone, making it clear that a turned-off camera doesn’t mean the employee is checked out. If there’s pushback, point to studies that show having a Zoom camera turned on hinders team communication and collaboration.
Simplify the goal and communication of your policies
Our world is more complex than ever, and no one understands this better than working moms. A while back, my local news station covered a story of a working mom with six kids—all of whom were in different schools with different COVID-19 policies. Imagine balancing that many plates at once.
Don’t add to the chaos with confusing policies. Be clear about the job expectations and performance standards, and be mindful of the ways that certain expectations are prohibitive to women. For example, one of the meeting standards my colleague wanted to implement was informing the group within 24 hours if someone couldn’t make it to the Zoom meeting. But given the unpredictable nature of childcare, mothers could be penalized unfairly, if, for example, a nanny were to call in sick at the last minute.
Additionally, we should provide flexibility whenever possible. The nine-to-five workday is pretty archaic and often doesn’t align well with school schedules. If work doesn’t need to be completed within that range, don’t enforce it. Instead, we can allow employees to customize their schedules to fit their specific needs.
I was floored when my colleagues wanted to implement sexist meeting standards, but it started a bigger conversation about how certain processes and policies stigmatize working moms. Stop the cycle and become an ally to women with these three steps.
Tracey Wik is a business strategist, coach, and speaker. She helps leaders reinvent what is possible for their work and their lives, encouraging them to love Sunday nights instead of fear Monday mornings.