It has essentially always been the case that in a home space, women and female identifying people have undertaken the bulk of domestic labour. Whether it’s feeding the pets, doing the household chores, or taking care of the kids, the gender gap has long manifested in women’s lives as having two jobs: a full time vocation outside of the home, and a second full time job as Chief Caretaker in the evenings and on weekends.
In recent decades, this gap has drifted towards a more equitable division of domestic labour between men and women. But as COVID-19 forced millions to work from home, this gendered gap in organizations of domestic labour has taken a new form and not in the direction we might have hoped.1 Inevitably, this divide has had an impact on how our employees contribute and engage with the workspace, and fairly so: family should come first. But there are ways that leadership and human resources can collaborate to help female employees with this work-home balancing act—for the betterment of everyone involved.
New Data on Domestic Labour in the Work From Home Era
In the six or so months since millions began taking meetings at their kitchen table rather than their desks, new data has emerged on how the domestic labour is divided amongst partners and how it impacts the work of each individual. Spoiler: the new looks a lot like the old.
“Work flexibility helps make job and family more compatible, but it can simultaneously cement the classic role divisions between men and women, or even make them stronger,” said Yvonne Lott, a researcher in gender and work at the Hans Böckler Foundation’s Institute of Economic and Social Research.2
In 2019, women were more likely to spend twice the amount of time as their male counterparts on childcare in almost every category of activity: leisure, teaching, caring, talking, physical exercise, etc.3 In the West, today as it has been for decades, women have borne the brunt of domestic labour and childcare, often while holding down full time employment.4
Men and Women Use WFH Flexibility Differently
This divide has also made apparent a surprising trend: while women are more likely to spend more time caring for children in work from home scenarios, men are more likely to work overtime. Laurie Penny wrote on this phenomenon as it impacted her desk in the newsroom of Wired, writing “In the early weeks of the Covid-19 lockdowns, editors at certain journals spotted a decline in submissions from women. In the same period, submissions from men increased.”5 This has serious implications for employers: because of this divide and remote work, women are not able to engage in the ways they normally would. This may be reflected as distractions and an inability to set aside dedicated time for consistent work as they would in the office so efficiency and productivity may fall. But, as we all well know, women are an integral aspect of the global workforce and despite these challenges (which are not, of course, the fault of our nation’s women), employers would do well to find ways to support these employees to keep them in the workforce.6
How Can Employers Support Women on Their Teams?
It’s been proven time and again that the best employees are those that feel valued. These employees are dedicated, loyal and take a personal, vested interest in the success of the company. For women that are struggling to manage their many responsibilities in work from home situations, feeling valued and supported by their employers is fundamental to creating a strong, mutually beneficial relationship. In lieu of solving gender discrimination and equity entirely, there are a few very simple steps that employers can take to continue supporting and nourishing the careers and performance of female employees.
Human resources teams have been hard at work these last few months creating robust work from home policies and this situation represents an opportunity for the application of precisely such a system. Developing policies and processes for supporting parents in general and especially women in the workplace, ensures a healthy workforce and therefore optimal performance.
This is an easy process. Leadership should check in with all employees to find out how working from home has impacted employee happiness and success. From here, inquire with employees how the company can support them. As reported by Judy Slutsky in her recent HR updates, empathy remains key: don’t forget that happy employees mean a stronger bottom line.7 Examples of actions employers can take could include offering flexible breaks and lunch hours to support school pickups or drop-offs; offering flex days or shorter work days to provide both targeted work hours and the ability to take time away—even one hour per day—could make a remarkable difference not only to an employee’s quality of life but their performance. (Before you protest, recall Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.)8
The reality is such that while this division of gendered labour impacts women disproportionately, the workforce cannot afford to lose female employees (nor should it be willing to!). As such, it’s up to leadership to improve the quality of employment for those employees disproportionately affected. Starting with strong, supportive policies and continuing active dialogue with employees to create purpose-built solutions will ensure a healthier, happier and higher performing workforce.