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Will COVID 19 be a pause or a full stop for gender parity?

The data is clear on this – that in heterosexual couples women take on more of the unpaid work –and that’s without COVID 19 meaning that couples will be under more pressure as schools and nurseries close. As an old mentor once said to me “under pressure we tend to revert to our natural style”. In our experience working with thousands of working parents over the last 14 years, the qualitative feedback we receive reinforces what the data finds – that women have often been socialised to believe that this is their job and they are better at this – often in fact because of others’ thinking about what they should do as well as their own limited thinking. This can be reinforced by the fact that they are often more practiced at the activities involved in caring and unpaid work,  I suspect due to additional time on parental leave or from their own upbringing and the chores they were given when they were younger.

In our business, we’ve started to see a shift in the role that men want to and are playing in their families but this is still fairly new and they are often still in the mode of ‘what can I do to help’ versus taking responsibility for what needs to be done? So, here is both the opportunity and the challenge that COVID 19 brings for couples navigating care and work – how are you going to actively and consciously navigate who does what so that it’s fair to both of you and your careers?

Our strong recommendation is to come up with a job description for unpaid work – much as you do for a job at work, including key tasks to do with caring and domestics (which now for many also includes homeschooling), and agree who will do what based on skill, motivation, and interest. And if neither of you wants to do something, agree to share it. Challenge your thinking about who should do what and make sure you’re not falling into the default of what men and women have typically done. If you have older children, include them so that the whole family is involved and try to be conscious of the fact that as your children are going to be around you a lot more than usual, they will observe and model your behaviour with regards to gender stereotyping.

One of the particular challenges that COVID 19 is throwing up is homeschooling and the reality of trying to work while you have young children who either need to be helped with school-work or in the case of pre-school children, entertained.  Can couples navigate this so both take on part of the responsibility? With planning and an understanding employer, the answer for many is yes, but for a sizeable number of people, this simply may not be possible in the short term and in the majority of these cases, pure economics mean it will be women picking up the domestic work.

So, how do we ensure that where this happens, it becomes a pause in progress to gender parity at a time of emergency rather than a full stop? I strongly believe that the more conscious people can be about how they plan and navigate this period as a family and the choices they make, the more likely it is that they won’t just slip into stereotyped roles and patterns of behaviour that will become hard to change in the longer term.

Virginia Herlihy

CEO and Founder, How Do You Do It

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