It’s So Nice to Have a Dad Around the House
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It’s So Nice to Have a Dad Around the House

Behind the pandemic's unequal impact on working mothers: What fathers and employers might have learned.

Among the many startling and depressing statistics about Covid-19’s economic impact on American workers, one seldom-mentioned but palpable effect of the pandemic is the shock felt by fathers as they were introduced to constant child care and daily housework during quarantine.

Yes, for many men, including those in two-earner heterosexual families, it was indeed an “introduction” to stay home and see what kids do all day. Besides exhaustion from learning entirely new tasks and trying to work remotely, fathers were asked, and ultimately forced, to confront decades-old stereotypes about who and what makes a household run. They had to do it to maintain their sanity and their marriages amid nationwide stay-at-home and social distancing orders. 

While it would be premature to conclude that the pandemic revolutionized the classic gender inequality rampant in virtually every American home and workplace, it is worth examining how the virus crisis forced parents and their employers to imagine—many for the first time—a possible new model for work-life balance, for both genders.

In January 2020, Gallup released an unsurprising poll on the roles of men and women in U.S. households. This was the third time Gallup had asked married and cohabitating couples to report who is “most likely to perform various tasks in the household”; the previous readings were in 1996 and 2007. The 2019 data was limited to heterosexual couples (97% of the sample) to track comparisons with past data, collected before same-sex marriage was legal. 

As noted by the New York Times in an early February article analyzing the Gallup results, opposite-sex couples between 18 and 34 years old were no more likely than older couples to share household chores equitably. These tasks included caring for children on a daily basis, cleaning the house, grocery shopping, doing laundry, and washing dishes. Despite stunning societal shifts among the young toward traditional gender roles, including acceptance of people who don’t identify as exclusively a man or a woman, the belief about who should run the household and raise the kids rests, in overwhelming numbers, on the slumping shoulders of working mothers.

Why this matters can be summed up in the trite but apt maxim “There are only so many hours in a day.” Gallup confirmed that, prior to the pandemic, women spent an hour more a day than men on housework and an hour more on child care. During the pandemic, according to a Boston Consulting Group report, parents in the U.S. nearly doubled the time they had spent pre-pandemic on education and household tasks, from 30 hours per week to 59. Mothers spent 15 hours more than fathers did on these essential family tasks.

What does this 15 hours-a-week “homework” gap mean for women? It’s the leading cause, according to various research studies, of gender gaps in pay and work promotions.

Decades of massive efforts to provide paid maternity leave and paternity leave, child care credits, flextime work arrangements, mentoring, on-site day care, part-time work, telecommuting, and scores of other innovative and progressive policies for employees have not, unfortunately, changed the dynamic for women who want to do well at their work and also be good mothers.

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Unquestionably, what hit U.S. parents hardest from March to June was that school as they knew it was gone. Ditto day care. Ditto back-up care from grandparents, friends and neighbors. Particularly hard-hit were single mothers, many of whom had to quit their jobs to take care of their children.

While Congress provided limited relief in the way of “pandemic parental leave,” the long-term economic damage to these workers, and their children, is immense. In a recent working paper from Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research, “The Impact of Covid-19 on Gender Equality,” the researchers noted that, “if all schools in the U.S. are closed for a prolonged period so that single mothers cannot work, then 27% of all children in the U.S. are at risk of living in poverty.”

Less financially dire, but no less concerning, are those working mothers who do hold down high-paying jobs and have a spouse with a consistent income, but who are nonetheless stymied in their attempt to “rise through the ranks” of corporate America.

A seemingly radical yet simple solution, offered by gender equality researchers Robin Ely and Irene Padavic and published in the March-April issue of the Harvard Business Review, is to abolish the “culture of overwork.” Eighty to ninety-hour workweeks, common in many professional work cultures that dictate extensive travel, 24/7 availability, and, by extension, an absent parent, contribute to an “inhumane” and unnecessary work environment for fathers, as well as for working mothers.

When men start quitting because they miss being with their families, companies might start to rethink their cultures. Dads who learned to love parenting and to tolerate vacuuming during the pandemic may lead the way to changing the nature of work, as well as home.

Linda L. Holstein is a Minneapolis writer, trial lawyer, and veteran employment law attorney. Holstein also mediates employment and business law disputes (holsteinmediation.com).