Now Is a Great Time to Check Your Gender Biases at Home

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AAround the world, dual-career families (which make up the majority of U.S. households today) are making hard choices about how to allocate their limited attention to work, childcare, housework, and other responsibilities. For those parents who have the privilege of remote or flexible work, getting to choose how to divide household labor may also allow biases to undermine smart, fair decision-making. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

This time gives us an opportunity to reframe the way we view gender and labor, and to make smarter choices about our routines. Drawing on our work as professors of management at, respectively, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the Driehaus College of Business at DePaul University, we’re convinced that an effective and happy home demands that parents unpack the gender biases that may be setting them back.

Here’s how to begin:

Redefine what matters

In our society, we tend to value highly compensated corporate leadership roles. These roles tend to be disproportionately held by men. Our rearranged world order, however, is highlighting the fact that these are not the only jobs that matter. We’re facing the reality that delivery, grocery store, pharmacy, janitorial, and other frequently overlooked employees are, in the parlance of our times, “essential workers.”

Yet, within our own homes, we often protect the work hours of the parent with the higher earning, higher status role. This frequently means the other partner’s career is sidelined and they are expected to bear the main responsibility for childcare and housework.

The pandemic has provided an opportunity to reframe how we value the careers in dual-career partnerships. For example, women constitute a majority of teachers, who are notoriously undercompensated and underrecognized. Teachers are being asked to quickly and competently transition to a fully online curriculum in order to support our nation’s children. Honoring and protecting their work time, even when it may be at the sake of the partner’s work time, requires rethinking what work matters most.

Question the status quo

The data are quite clear that women spend significantly more time doing housework than men. Hidden gender-based assumptions may have played into how those habits were formed. Rather than falling back on these old habits, we could take this moment to renegotiate who does what, ideally with an eye towards a more equitable distribution of household labor and childcare responsibilities. Even if one partner is always the one who does the cooking, and another is always the one who does bedtime, families can and should question whether the status quo is really working for them now.

Try a new way and see if it works and, if not, continue to adjust and learn.

Notice the mental load

Beyond the division of obvious responsibilities (like feeding children and doing laundry), pay attention to the mental load that each partner is bearing. That is, who is taking on the cognitive burden of making plans, remembering what needs to get done, doing research, and so forth? This mental load often goes unnoticed and falls disproportionately to women, even in well-intentioned egalitarian partnerships.

In these trying times, we are managing a whole slew of unexpected mental responsibilities. Many parents are now keeping track of assignments across multiple apps, arranging virtual playdates, and monitoring internet safety. Chores have new meaning, as we’re compelled to focus on our toilet paper supply and stay up to date on shelter-in-place ordinances. This is work we rarely acknowledge and even less frequently discuss and allocate to a specific family member. Rather than have one carry the majority of this mental load (on top of the stress and anxiety we’re all experiencing right now), we should consciously allocate them.

Challenge biased workplace messaging

There’s evidence that men experience a “fatherhood bonus” — when they become dads they are seen as more competent and reliable. Women, on the other hand, experience the “motherhood penalty,” and are viewed as less dedicated to their careers. These same biases play out during the pandemic. Even unconsciously, work colleagues may have subtle expectations about the degree to which it’s acceptable for fathers and mothers to acknowledge family responsibilities, forgo or reschedule meetings, or have a child on their lap during a video call.

If you notice overt or even subtle messaging that implies different expectations for how mothers and fathers adjust their work to accommodate family demands, call it out in a spirit of curiosity and commitment to the collective purpose. If you notice, for example, that people point out that a man is “such a great dad” when his child interrupts an important meeting but roll their eyes when the same thing happens to a woman, it can be useful to identify this, say what you think it means, and ask others how they see it. This can raise awareness and set the stage for a shift toward more progressive attitudes and behavior.

Be a role model

We need mothers and fathers to model — as much to their peers as to their children — what it looks like to be a parent who leads; that is, to act in accordance with our core values. We need fathers who connect to videoconferences with a child on their lap, not just mothers. We need mothers leading virtual meetings and making important workplace decisions, not just fathers.

When you lead in this values-driven way, it can have ripple effects in your home, workplace, and the community at large. A more equitable future just might start with your next Zoom call.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from Parents Who Lead: The Leadership Approach You Need to Parent with Purpose, Fuel Your Career, and Create a Richer Life by Stewart D. Friedman and Alyssa F. Westring. Copyright 2020 by Stewart D. Friedman and Alyssa F. Westring. All rights reserved.

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