Could The Pandemic Be A Gender Equalizer at the Workplace?

Like many working moms, I take pride in balancing my responsibilities as wife, mother, and business leader. But recent weeks have reminded me that my success depends not just on my own talent and drive, but also on my husband’s support, hard work, and sacrifices.

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Working from home, I’ve loved seeing more of my husband and kids, but bouncing from Zoom meetings to dealing with schoolwork, spills, and scraped knees has been challenging. My amazing husband has protected my time and kept the kids and house under control — so if things still feel tough, it’s a sign of how difficult the collision of work and family life can be. 

Like many working moms, I take pride in balancing my responsibilities as wife, mother, and business leader. But recent weeks have reminded me that my success depends not just on my own talent and drive, but also on my husband’s support, hard work, and sacrifices. 

Speaking to colleagues as they struggle with this new reality of remote work and up-close parenting, I know I’m not alone. I hope this difficult period will be a tipping point that leads us to give all caregivers the respect they deserve — and that moving forward, we’ll leverage that to chart a more effective approach to gender equity. 

Personal choices, collective benefits

Everyone’s dealing with unique challenges right now — but hopefully through that we’ll learn the importance of empathy, and the need to understand people’s burdens by walking a mile in their shoes. Certainly, this has helped me see my husband’s role during this difficult time in a new light, and I’m more grateful than ever for all he does for our family. 

After our first child was born, and with the many responsibilities added to our checklists, we pretty quickly realize that our family work-life balance was in danger of falling our of equilibrium. With our priorities aligned, we jointly decided that my husband would manage the bulk of this new work. That made sense for us, and we periodically reevaluate to make sure it’s still working well. 

Such active, collaborative decision-making is missing from the debate over gender equity, though, which focuses on whether women are getting paid enough, being given maternity leave, and so forth. Though vital, such questions are only part of the story. To achieve equity, we need to help both men and women to live their best lives. Instead of viewing women as caregivers, we should help workers of both genders to figure out what’s best for their families. That means encouraging our employees to think of themselves as potential caregivers. 

The power of experience

A few years ago my former employer, Adobe, began granting 16 weeks of paid leave to new parents who weren’t the primary caregiver, in order to give dads time to get to know their babies. 

At first, I was unconvinced. Men have countless advantages — do they also need paternity leave? But I soon realized that gender equity isn’t a zero-sum game, and there’s nothing unfair about helping men to forge better relationships with their kids. 

The policy’s full impact emerged more slowly. Once, female coworkers had been judged for going on parental leave and leaving coworkers short-handed. Now men were doing the same! People still griped about colleagues heading off on parental leave, but it was no longer a gendered complaint. And when men returned from leave, they had to struggle — just as women had always done — to catch up, rebuild connections, and regain professional momentum.

Building a movement

Adobe isn’t alone in leading on gender equity. My current employer, Akeneo, recently joined the #ParentalAct campaign, committing to provide paid leave for both parents. More than 300 other companies have joined us, giving 35,000 workers access to paid parental leave.  

Such policies have a big impact — not by treating women differently, but by making caregiving an option for employees of both genders. That validates and normalizes women’s experiences, because as men walk in their female colleagues’ shoes they gain a deeper understanding of the frustrations and tensions that come with balancing work and family. 

The truth is that caregiving shouldn’t be gendered. Both men and women are equally capable of closing deals and making lunch, and both roles deserve our respect. The more we can help men and women find equitable family arrangements on their own terms, the better equipped our businesses and our society will be for whatever challenges lie ahead. 

Leading by example

Still, encouraging men to become caregivers isn’t a silver bullet. We also need to give women mentoring and strong role models. Until women can imagine themselves in the boardroom, it will be hard to overcome the biases that still remain. 

Certainly, I credit my own success to the leaders, both men and women, who’ve supported my journey. And right now, with the shortcomings in our national leadership so glaringly exposed, it’s refreshing to see business leaders stepping up and leading by example. 

Watching an executive excuse themself from a meeting to handle a family crisis, or gracefully welcome a young child into a Zoom call, helps both male and female employees understand that every worker faces tension between their domestic and professional lives — and that even high fliers can have a robust family life. 

After the pandemic

A key lesson from this pandemic is that we’re all connected. Nobody likes wearing a mask to the grocery store — but we do it to protect our neighbors and keep our community safe. I hope that as we return to “normal”, we’ll do so with a better understanding that our domestic and professional lives are connected too. 

As individuals, we need to respect the caregivers who enable our careers. As executives, we need to lead by example, and show that family obligations matter. And as companies, we need to establish policies to help all our employees thrive in whatever roles they choose to play.

Companies that aim high, and help their employees enjoy rewarding lives as both professionals and caregivers, will see real results. This pandemic has shown how hard it is when work and family collide. As things improve, we must learn from that — and commit to promoting true gender equity for all our employees.

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