By: Regina F. Lark, Ph.D.
It’s been over a year since I posted the blog, “Grim and Grimmer: The Impact of Quarantine on the Lives of Professional Women.” I’d love to say that we’ve learned many lessons in the 18 months of living with COVID-19 it’s more than disconcerting to realize that we still have a long way to go. What I wrote last year remains true, keeping reading to learn about one woman who is calling for radical change in how we do business, and upsetting the status quo.
A new word entered our vocabulary this summer: She-Session. C. Nicole Mason, President of the Institute of Women’s Policy Research, coined this term which refers to an economic downturn where job and income losses are affecting women more than men.” The volume of work that has fallen onto the shoulders of women is unfathomable. Women have been working the “double-day” for a decades and are used to exaggerated work hours. Waged work by day, un-waged work by night, COVID has now introduced women to the triple-day of working from home, schooling from home, and trying to keep it all together all the time – you guessed it – from home.
We didn’t think it was possible, but our days now start earlier and end later, working crazy amounts of additional work that we had not anticipated. My friend Michelle says: We are always struggling with an upended schedule – later starts, kids at home during “lunch,” getting to activities after school with a whole new set of COVID requirements and restrictions, waivers, masks, new locations. Whew! On top of that – learning that each of my kids has a different learning style. And the depths of emotionally managing teen angst about not seeing friends, or the failure to launch because there doesn’t seem be anything to launch into. With the added work comes painful decisions to cut back on the work that pays the bills, in favor of the work that keeps a family together and surviving through this era of struggle.
Journalists and economists are weighing in, writing about the fiscal impact when women cut back on paid hours. Katie Fleisher writes in September Ms. how remote working hurts working moms. This adds to the exacerbation of inequality when comes to the division of labor in the home. If husbands don’t take time to learn how to run and manage a household, well, someone has to do it and, of course, it falls on the shoulders of women.
To add to the problem, a new study shows that working moms are three times less likely to receive a promotion than working dads. And while working dads have received a third of the promotions during the pandemic, only 9% of promotions went to working moms. When a wife cuts back on her work hours, she’s seen as ‘less dedicated.’ When a husband keeps his nose to the grindstone at the job, he’s seen as “more committed.” Another study found that dads are less likely to experience disruption than their wives. “Nearly half of moms’ paid work hours are split between work and other distractions.”
There’s a weird irony here. The corporate workplace was never designed for women. Prior to World War One, as corporate America experienced growth, the male dominated fields of secretaries and typists set in motion an interesting dynamic: company owners, men, would look to their male secretaries in a way that resembled a father and son relationship, giving the new, young, white collar worker an opportunity to rise in the company. World War One changed all of that. As male secretaries left their jobs to enlist, women took their places easily (although not without problems – women had to get past the perception that they were “loose” as evidenced in their desire to work alongside men).
But when women dominated the pool of administrative staff, that father son relationship changed to one of husband and wife, and female secretaries became an extension of the emotional labor support that men enjoyed in the home.
Another way the corporate workspace was never designed for women is the hours. Pre-COVID-19, the typical nine-to-five work never corresponded to the typical eight-to-three school day. And, not to put too fine a point on things – pre-COVID – when a working mom (okay, I know, all moms are working moms) asked for a hybrid or flex schedule, her request was typically viewed as, you guessed it, her not committed enough to the job and less dedicated than her male counterpart.
And now, ironically, corporate America is in our living rooms, kitchens, dens, and garages. The work hours have expanded, the responsibilities have increased, and women have not seen anything like a decrease in the demand for their time. As a result, current studies show that a she-sessions will have dire impacts on the lives of professional women. Passed over for promotion because of the perception that she’d rather work few paid hours, employers may think twice about hiring a woman who also happens to be a mom. Wage gaps and hiring gaps will have long-term consequences. Harvard economist Claudia Goldin explains that if the traditional work place opens before schools, or vice versa, “there is a very real possibility of long term damage to a woman’s career.”
So… what to do? First, company owners can get on board with changing the hours of the traditional workplace because there is nothing traditional about it. Second, families need to have hard, important conversations about sharing all the work of the household. Let’s prove that we are all in this together. Finally – and I recognize that this may be a big ask for husbands but here goes: recognize that all the work that goes into managing a household is actual work but of the unwaged variety. So if your wife had to leave paid employment to take on the additional labor at home, never will you ever say, “My wife’s not working.” Because she is. All. The. Time. She’s having her She Session.
As thought-provoking as these suggestions may be, it was with a great excited when I learned about the work of a brilliant entrepreneur, Reshma Saujani, who seeks to challenge the trap of ‘this is the way we’ve always done it,” recommend radical change, and upset the status quo. The “Marshall Plan for Moms,” is Saujani’s brainchild and she, along with 49 other progressive thought leaders took out a 2-page letter to newly elected President Biden to draw attention to the dismal government and corporate response to the pandemic, at least where women are concerned.
Marshall Plan for Moms provides a “playbook” for government and corporate entities to foster a new vision in their support of women in the paid workplace. As Saujani writes, “It’s time to prioritize moms at work.’ The playbook encourages adult sons to take advantage of family leave to care for an elder parent, and incentivizing parental leave for dads to share equitably the burden of a new infant. Saujani writes, that “Studies show that mothers face a “Motherhood Penalty” while fathers earn a “Fatherhood Premium.” Upsetting the status quo would require “unconscious bias training for employees to root out the stigmas moms face for caretaking and push leaders to regularly speak out against these biases.”
The epidemic laid bare a lot of problems and challenges faced by millions of families across America. While life during the pandemic has been more than a little scary, scarier will be if we do not challenge the status quo and maintain the death knell of any organization or family unit, “this is the way we’re always done it,” which is partly responsible for the mess we’re in right now.
Regina Lark is the principle at A Clear Path, LLC. She is the author of Psychic Debris, Crowded Closets: The Relationship Between the Stuff in Your Head and What’s Under Your Bed.(now available on Audible).
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