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Is the Pandemic Telling Us How to Fix Gender Inequality in the Workplace?

I spent the first six months of this pandemic enraged. Mostly due to an overwhelming feeling of burden regarding all the additional domestic chores the pandemic added to our plates. ALL! THE! DISHES! The unending cycle of meal prep and the virtual school tug-of-war with my children – least we forget our day jobs. I mean the […]

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I spent the first six months of this pandemic enraged. Mostly due to an overwhelming feeling of burden regarding all the additional domestic chores the pandemic added to our plates. ALL! THE! DISHES! The unending cycle of meal prep and the virtual school tug-of-war with my children – least we forget our day jobs. I mean the ones that pay the bills. And for the lucky ones who haven’t lost their jobs, the constant pull of trying to virtually lean in at work while managing everything else has been overwhelming.

I turned my anger and frustration towards what I know best – interrogating data. I wrote about it here, and what I foundwas disturbing. At the onset of the pandemic, when the first states began to shut down, it was working mothers, and working mothers only, who shifted formal work engagements outside the household to accommodate shifting dynamics within their home. Fathers – no. Women without children – no. Mothers, on the other hand, took leave from work.

But if you’ve been following other cutting-edge literature on the pandemic, gender, and the economy a slightly different picture starts to emerge. This research highlights the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women’s jobs. Women work in restaurants and services, but they also work in hospitals, schools, and other spaces of critical care. While women in the first group experienced job loss, women in the second group were spared. For those women, it was most likely dads stepping up to care for children. Economic models mapping out gender trends during and post-pandemic under this scenario give hope. They suggest that gender inequalities may decrease post-pandemic as some dads increase domestic tasks while this second group of mothers leans in at work. 

When I investigated this dynamic a little further in my own data, I found that mothers who stayed working increased hours worked, but only mothers living with non-working spouses, increasing their work hours by 5 percent. These families may be shifting the dial on gender equity in our country.

To Reduce Gender Inequality in the Workplace: “Nudge” Dads, Support Formalized Systems of Care, and Speak Out

Recent studies highlighting challenges to achieving gender equality in the workplace focus on areas of our domestic life (e.g. maternity leave and having additional children) as impediments. Economists think one way to change behavior is to “nudge” people in a different direction – sometimes without them realizing it. Dads partnered with essential worker moms may have been nudged into increased domestic tasks at home. These men may be taking on more domestic responsibilities. There is limited evidence that men can be nudged to more actively participate in childcare and domestic chores either through policies that require men’s participation (e.g. giving extra paternity leave specifically for fathers) or through executives and managers leading by example and normalizing behavior (e.g. making it acceptable and normative for fathers in their organization to take time off to care for children). 

Childcare is a struggle working parents deal with privately and, as this pandemic has shown, when push comes to shove its moms who disproportionately carry the burden. They quietly share challenges with friends or relatives. Whisper conversations with their partner about who will stop working to take care of the children when the cost of childcare is more than the wages one of them would receive. The choice of who will step out of the workforce is overwhelmingly gendered. In about 70% of dual-career heterosexual couples, husbands earn more than wives. In some respects, dual-parent families are the lucky ones. Single parents face even more daunting challenges. This is no longer sustainable. As a nation, we are losing out. The problem stifles economic growth and hinders innovation as families are left with difficult choices regarding the financial cost and availability of care for their dependents. If we do nothing, traditional norms will continue to challenge women’s ability to give back to society at their fullest potential.

The pandemic has exposed challenges to gender equality in the workplace – flaws so close to our heart that they live and breathe in the most private of spaces, our homes. The recent evidence, however, also provides hope that things can change – or, at a minimum, gives us a direction. But we need to hold everyone’s feet to the fire. Gender inequalities can improve post-pandemic if: (1) policies are created that nudge men to step up and equal out the distribution of domestic chores within the household, (2) policymakers step up and actively pursue policies that support viable child care for all parents, and (3) women who are disproportionately affected (and overwhelmed and exhausted) make their voices heard. Women deserve to have a family they love AND live up to their full potential in the formal sectors of our society.  Society, along with its economic growth, deserve it too.

Misty L. Heggeness is a principal economist and senior advisor for evaluations and experiments at the U.S. Census Bureau. Any thoughts, opinions, and errors expressed here are entirely her own and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Census Bureau. A longer version of this article is available here.

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