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New Data: Shifting Gender Norms at Home and Work

We must acknowledge the relationship between the personal and the professional.

Key points

  • New data contributes to what we have known for decades — gender norms underpin our behaviors at work and home.
  • We need to improve the working conditions of women and mothers.
  • Telework may be part of the solution, but it is not an answer in itself.

We see changing gender norms on a daily basis – dads wearing a baby Bjorn at the playground, men perusing the grocery aisles for dinner. This can lead us to feel the American home is gender-equal. But the truth is that traditional gender norms still affect our actions, behaviors, and decisions on a daily basis. My debut book, Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home, discussed how gender norms affect our relationships, partnerships, and the division of unpaid household labor.

However, the influence of traditional gender norms doesn’t stop at our front door. Harmful attitudes towards and perceptions of gender are pervasive in our work lives as well as our home lives. Our society still places a higher priority on women in domestic work and caregiving roles, while subconsciously associating men with income generation and work outside the home. If we ever hope to achieve a truly equitable society, we need to tackle gender norms in all areas of our society and acknowledge the links between the personal and the professional. After all, the amount of time we have to spend at home is directly related to the hours we spend at work – and vice versa.

That is why a new collection of data from the Council on Contemporary Families Gender Equality Symposium is so exciting. Collectively, these seven papers give us a clearer vision of how the pandemic influenced gender norms both at home and at work, where we stand today in 2023, and what we still need to do to move closer to equality.

Women in the Workforce

If we want to achieve true gender equality, then we need to ensure women have equal access to employment and professional opportunities. Data presented at the symposium underscored the extent to which gaps between men and women, between mothers and non-mothers, have persisted beyond the pandemic.

While men and college-educated women have fully returned to the workforce, women without a college degree have not; current employment levels are still below 2019 for this demographic. The data also showed that mothers with a partner and a child or children under the age of 13 dropped out of the workforce at higher rates during the pandemic and have reentered the workforce at lower rates than fathers in similar situations. The lack of affordable childcare and family-friendly policies in many workplaces could keep more women out of the workforce longer, limiting their long-term earning and career advancement potential.

Within the college-educated demographic, researchers also saw differences between mothers and non-mothers, noting that college-educated mothers make six percent less than college-educated women without children. Symposium authors posited the reason was because during the pandemic, mothers were forced to switch to lower-paying jobs that allowed them the flexibility to do unpaid caregiving work. Symposium authors also identified instances of employer discrimination against mothers for perceived productivity loss while those women were juggling additional household responsibilities during the pandemic.

Men at Home

If we want to achieve true gender equality, we also need to ensure men have equal access to the domestic space. We need to ensure men have the time and opportunities to serve in caregiving roles, and as a society, we need to collectively value those hours of caregiving as much as we value men’s working hours.

Interestingly, the symposium authors found that many men want to be equal partners in their homes and to contribute more to caregiving tasks, but that they feel limited by traditional norms associated with men, masculinity, and work. As we subconsciously push men to prioritize work success over domestic achievements, our higher expectations for men to earn bigger paychecks can be reinforced by employers’ higher expectations for men’s commitment to the job. This can make it very difficult for men to carve adequate time away from work obligations.

Is Working From Home the Answer?

Symposium authors found that during the pandemic, mothers collectively did see an increase in hours spent doing household labor. But fathers’ household labor hours also increased. Although we certainly did not reach anything close to parity, we did manage to slightly narrow the household gender gap during the 2020 shutdowns.

However, there was no lasting change for most couples; symposium data revealed that most couples quickly reverted to pre-pandemic patterns. The few different-sex couples who have managed long-term change tend to have a male partner who works from home at least part of the week. Being present at home, and thus spending more hours in the house with kids, contributes to greater household equity. “When partnered fathers worked from home more frequently during the pandemic, partnered mothers performed smaller shares of housework and childcare; mothers were additionally more likely to be employed and worked more hours in paid labor, thereby reducing the well-known gender gap in both paid and unpaid labor.”

But for women, working from home can be both a blessing and a curse. Working from home does allow for additional flexibility; as someone who works from home myself, I admit I like being able to throw a load of laundry in between calls – or unload the dishwasher on a break. But working from home can limit women in the long-term. Once the family comes to depend on women providing those additional home labor hours, working women can feel less able to look for different work, put in for a promotion, or step up for a work trip. And jobs that can be virtual and allow for greater flexibility often come with a lower salary, trapping women in a lower-earning cycle.

Flexible jobs that allow telework may be part of a solution – but it is certainly not the answer itself. And job flexibility will only work if we apply the same standards to people of all genders. For true sustainable change, we need to tackle the structural and social norms at the root of our behaviors.

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