The coronavirus pandemic has put parents under immense strain, but the crisis is exposing new inequalities in the gender gap as working mothers shoulder the greater burden.
While many working parents have experienced disruptions, it is often working moms who take on the extra responsibilities and stressors of managing day-to-day life. Three-quarters of mothers work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a study by the Pew Research Center found that 56% of mothers surveyed said it is “somewhat/very difficult” to balance both work and life responsibilities.
“I have four kids myself who are all very young,” says Lindsey Michaelides, founder of Strongsuit, a tech-based concierge service for working parents. “As a busy working parent, your work life and your family life are super intertwined. In this current pandemic, a lot of the support structures and systems that working parents tap into on a regular basis have suddenly evaporated.”
Once her professional day ends, a mother’s “second shift” at home typically begins. Since the pandemic, working mothers are now spending 65 hours per week on child care and household duties, 15 hours more per week than fathers, according to a survey by the Boston Consulting Group.
“In the wake of the pandemic, what's happened is we've gone from this second shift to a third shift. Working parents are now finding themselves with two big jobs at the same exact time,” says Sarah Greenberg, lead coach at BetterUp, a corporate coaching platform. “There’s more labor, and patterns are already ingrained where there’s a very unconscious expectation on women that doesn’t exist in the same way for men. This has exacerbated an already existing divide.”
To keep working mothers engaged and employed during the pandemic and beyond means, employers need to reframe how they approach their support of them, says Moses Balian, HR manager of JustWorks, an HR technology company.
“Child care obligations and mental health in the workplace have historically, and still are, viewed through the lens of being a problem to fix, and that needs to change,” he says. “It's been, ‘OK, my employee who's a parent has to deal with their kid, and for me as their manager, it's an annoyance.’”
With children an often visible part of a working parent’s day, employers need to reckon with the fact that this group of employees will bring a different perspective and experience to the workplace, which can benefit a company’s culture, he says.
“Rather than looking at these parental obligations as something to be fixed or repaired, employers should include the different perspectives that are afforded by being a parent to make the workplace more dynamic and inclusive,” Balian says.
For Michaelides, addressing the challenges working mothers face has become her life’s work. Her business, Strongsuit, provides tech-enabled concierge-style services to help parents organize their work and home lives. The company was born after her own struggles adjusting back to work after maternity leave.
“My co-founder and I are both part of dual-career households. We were trying to figure out how to keep our foot on the gas with respect to our careers while also having a family life, and it was incredibly challenging,” she says. “Women are overwhelmingly burdened by the mental load — while we're working a full-time job or while we're making a huge sales pitch, we're also thinking in the back of our mind that we need to buy eggs, or what we’re making for dinner, or what we need to do for our kids.”
This dynamic is even present between Michaelides and her husband, who she describes as “an equal partner at home.”
“There are deeply ingrained gender roles within many households, and that leads into the issue where women are feeling the brunt of this,” she says.
Issues of gender inequality at work and at home were present well before the global pandemic, Michaelides says, but there’s a risk that much of the progress women have made to close the gap will be erased. Women have been hit hard when it comes to the onslaught of layoffs and furloughs since the start of the pandemic. The unemployment rate as of April was 16.2% for women, compared to 13.5% for men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“There's a real risk that we take a huge step back in this moment in time,” Michaelides says, noting that statistically men still earn more than women do. “So when both of you have Zoom calls exactly the same time, who's going to give up their call? Who's going to take care of the kids, and who's going to reschedule? And I think oftentimes that ends up falling on the woman.”
To address these challenges, workplaces need to be flexible with their work and time-off policies as the pandemic disrupts normal parental routines. In addition, employers need to simply accept that their benefits offerings cannot be one-size-fits-all when it comes to addressing the specific needs of working parents, Greenberg says.
“Sometimes we have this view that we're all in the same storm, so everyone should have the same level of resources. Well, we all are in the same storm, but we don't have the same boat,” she says. “One thing employers can start with is being aware of the differential load that certain groups are taking on. Mothers of young children are just going to be carrying a bigger load than others.”
A variety of workplace benefits programs have expanded over the last few months in response to the needs of working parents. Cleo, a benefits platform for working families, recently partnered with UrbanSitter, a child care service provider, to connect parents to child care options and other coaching services. Maven, a women’s and family digital health company, expanded their benefit offerings to include Bright Parenting, an app that helps parents learn and use proven behavioral health techniques.
While these benefits can go a long way to helping working parents feel supported, it’s critical that the burden placed on mothers is a visible issue with an eye toward solutions both at work and at home, Greenberg says.
“Gender equity at work begins in the home, and it also needs to be supported by employers,” she says. “This should really be a wakeup call.”
For working mothers struggling under the weight of work and home responsibilities, Michaelides says the pandemic has been an opportunity for her to readjust her own expectations of what success looks like.
“There's a couple of things that I'm living by, and one is just redefining success on a daily basis. My definition of success today would have probably made me cry four months ago,” she says. “But the more we can give ourselves grace, that’s where we can accept that everyone is doing the best that we can.”