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OPINION: Women shoulder most of the extra work because of COVID-19

by Rachel Thomas | LeanIn.Org
Saturday, 4 April 2020 14:37 GMT

People gather for the Women's March in Washington U.S., January 21, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the spirit of solidarity this pandemic demands of us, we need to find ways to give women a break

By Rachel Thomas, the co-founder and CEO of LeanIn.Org

We need to talk about the extra work women are shouldering because of COVID-19.

Millions of Americans are adjusting to our new norm. We’re turning our homes into schoolhouses. We’re stockpiling supplies. We’re trying to make sure our kids feel safe and supported.

If human behavior tells us anything, it’s that Mom is handling most of this work. 

That was the case pre-pandemic. In the 2019 Women in the Workplace report, 40 percent of women said they do all or most of the childcare and housework for their families. Just 12 percent of men said the same. This disparity holds true globally. According to a survey OECD conducted in 20 countries, women do an average of 173 minutes of housework each day, compared to just 71 minutes for men. Meanwhile, one in eight women worldwide are single mothers. Everything’s on their shoulders. 

That’s how the table was set before the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was business as usual. Now the burdens on women are even heavier. According to new research by LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey, 77% of mothers have taken on more household work since the pandemic started. And that doesn’t count all the emotional labor women tend to do – like checking in on older relatives.

The result is a non-stop, high-stakes juggling act. We’re carefully standing apart from other shoppers at the grocery store while fielding calls from our boss, then rushing home to disinfect surfaces and make sure our kids aren’t bored out of their minds. As one woman I know put it, “I was already working harder than I thought was possible. Now I’m supposed to be a high-performing employee, a reassuring mom during a global crisis – and my kid’s teacher too?!” 

This is nothing compared to what healthcare workers and other people on the frontlines are going through – many of whom have kids at home. And it’s nothing compared to people who have to work sick because they don’t have another option, or the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs or are about to. 

Still, it’s a lot. If COVID-19 takes months to get under control, women won’t be able to keep this up. In the spirit of solidarity this pandemic demands of us, we need to find ways to give women a break. 

Employers, please internalize that most women are not just working a double shift, but a double double shift right now. Even in normal times, America’s work culture can be over the top. In these abnormal times, we need to switch from “get it done” to “do what you can.” Consider dropping hard deadlines – projects can keep moving forward without them. Take the time to learn what the people on your teams are dealing with. Are they taking care of kids or parents full time? Do they have the ability to work uninterrupted at home? Find out – then do what you can to work with their specific situation.

This is the time for as much compassion and grace as possible. Those aren’t words we often use to describe employers, and this is an opportunity to change that.

And men, be clear-eyed about how many hours you and your partner spend on everything that goes into running your home right now. Lots of you are stepping up to do more household labor and childcare. Still, cognitive biases will persist. If you go from doing 20 percent of the housework to doing 30 percent, you may feel like you’re doing a ton – when you’re still doing less than half. 

This emergency is reshaping our lives in ways we don’t fully understand. If we’re not careful, we will burden women with more than they can possibly do. That will leave a whole lot of women burnt out when this pandemic is finally controlled. But if we rise to the occasion, we may change our workplaces and households for the better – and for good.