Changing Diapers, Washing Dishes & The Worlds of Work
The Connection between Domestic and Workplace Engagement
by Andrea Vásquez & Dr. Kristen Liesch
“We won’t reach equity in the workplace until we address inequities in the home.”
A recent New York Times article tells the story of two Cornell-educated lawyers: a man and a woman (a husband/father and a wife/mother), and how employer expectations and social gender norms have produced a stark inequity in both their personal and their professional lives.
Their story - which is still very common among heterosexual couples in Western nations - saw the man’s career take priority once they had a child.*
Because she was taking maternity leave… Because he was earning more already anyways… Because childcare is expensive… Because…
The nature of work pushes “couples who have equal career potential to take on unequal roles.”
So… she works part time, takes care of the kids, of the home, and he works full (very full) time, and - because she’s got the kids and home in her purview - he’s available for overtime, on-call work, last minute client meetings, work travel, etc.
But why is this a problem? They clearly made the decision to distribute domestic and paid work this way. It must be working for them, right? Wrong. And the consequences extend beyond the family unit.
Research shows that, third only to faithfulness and good sex, sharing household chores is ranked high on issues associated with a successful marriage. According to recent statistics, women in Canada spend 50% more time doing domestic work than men. In Costa Rica, women do 22 hours a week more of household chores than their male partners.**
GENERAL WELLBEING IS DIMINISHED
When a woman is able to contribute to her career on par with her male partner - in other words, when she doesn’t have to compromise workplace participation - her wellbeing (and the wellbeing of those around her) can benefit. Women’s empowerment in the workplace is ranked the highest, globally, in Iceland, a country that also ranks in the top four on the world’s happiness index.
THERE ARE ECONOMIC RAMIFICATIONS
Economic consequences are felt in macro and micro ways.
MACRO: There is huge potential in women’s workplace equality. In Canada, it has the potential to add $150 billion in incremental GDP in 2026, or a 0.6 percent increase to annual GDP growth.
MICRO: On the personal scale, the “motherhood penalty” is expressed in pay disparity, reduced promotion opportunities, and a wage gap that persists throughout the career. Studies of college-educated women in the U.S. showed they earned almost as much as men until ages 26-33, but by 45, they made barely more than half the earnings of their male counterparts. Now add to that picture the divorce rate (50%), as well as research that draws connections between financial (in)dependence and intimate partner violence, and you’ve got a grim picture.
GENDER-BASED NORMS ARE REPRODUCED
When children grow up in households where more “traditional” gender norms are practiced, the standard is set for those children, and breaking from them becomes a new challenge.
THE FAMILY MISSES OUT
When a father has the opportunity to be involved, consistently, in the daily life of his child(ren), the positive outcomes are enormous.
“Children who have an involved father are more likely to be emotionally secure, be confident to explore their surroundings, and, as they grow older, to have better social connections.”
SO WHAT DO WE DO?
In 1970, Carol Hanisch wrote an essay that not only informed the women’s movement she was a part of, but one that has become part of the language we use as feminists today. She said:
“the Personal is Political.”
At the end of the day, what happens in the political and broader social arenas has an impact on our personal lives and experiences, and the choices we make in our personal lives can impact and influence social and political systems.
In other words, what we choose to do - in the workplace, in the home - as organizations and as individuals matters.
Let us acknowledge the many discussions happening in feminist groups exploring how (pro-)feminist men / allies should act; should he attend demonstrations or should he respect exclusive women’s spaces; should he raise his voice or just listen; should he call himself an ardent feminist or keep a low profile and let women lead?
If you’re at a loss. Here are a couple of ideas:
Think about how you might engage while doing the dishes, playing with the kids, driving the parent-in-law to the doctor.
Acknowledge your parental responsibilities at work. Taking the afternoon to go to your kid’s music recital? Say so. Arriving late because you had to navigate a toddler’s temper tantrum? Say so. Women have always faced backlash for appearing “not committed enough” to their work because they deal with familial responsibilities. When men shine a spotlight on their own engagement in parenting duties, they begin to chip away at that gendered penalty.
In her book Fed Up (read an excerpt here), Gemma Hartley mentions how she wants her husband to do domestic and emotional work to deepen his relationships with their children, among other reasons. Certainly, it’s a good idea for men to invest in family relationships, but we don’t believe it should be up to women to moderate that.
And beware commodifying domestic duties.
A recent viral meme showed a woman with her arms around a man giving him a smooch on the cheek. He, with a smile on his face, was holding a letterboard that read:
“Helping with the housework so you can get lucky is called choreplay.”
Australian feminist, author and influencer, Clementine Ford, commented: “Equal partners don’t ‘help’ with the housework, and they certainly don’t do it in exchange for sex, as if women’s engagement with sexuality is as a system of gratitude and reward for men who play nicely.”
Given the dialectic nature of the household/workplace in this discussion, organizations can do a lot to increase equity, the economic empowerment of women, and the positive effects of greater parental and domestic equality.
LEADERS CAN SET AN EXAMPLE
Imagine how impactful it would be to hear a male CEO talking about how he is juggling his own domestic and professional obligations.
POLICIES CAN ENCOURAGE PATERNAL ENGAGEMENT
A fundamental step toward change is granting men parental leave. Liza Mundy, in her Atlantic’s article Daddy Track: The Case for Paternity Leave, writes:
“Paternity leave is a brilliant and ambitious form of social engineering: a behaviour-modification tool that has been shown to boost male participation in the household, enhance female participation in the labour force, and promote gender equity in both domains.”
There are, of course, a lot of complexities around the design and deployment of effective parental leave policies, but they are out there. Benevity, for example, is working hard to reimagine a parental leave policy that really works. (Read more on “Fatherhood and Work-Family Balance”)
Life happens. When your organization can make space for its people to deal with life when it happens, you will have a more engaged and satisfied workforce. Again, leading by example is a powerful way to ensure that you’re seen as “walking the talk.” Leaders need to set the precedent and make use of flexible work when they need to, and be seen taking that time.
Leaders have the power to influence others and challenge the status quo.
When we say that the personal is political, that of course includes how we live in our most intimate spaces. Talking about how much domestic work we do - or don’t do - and how these tasks are distributed at home is one fundamental step toward advancing gender equality in not only our personal, but also our professional lives.
co-authored by Andrea Vásquez, Collaborative member, and Dr. Kristen Liesch, Women’s Work Institute / Sum Strategy co-director.
An innovator for gender equity, Andrea lives and works in Costa Rica. She helps organizations advance gender equity using communication tools, behavioural sciences, and design thinking. She’s worked in behavioural change, gender equality, and human rights for more than ten years in United Nations agencies and the Government of Canada. She’s passionate about using choice architecture to promote gender equality and inclusion.
LEARN MORE ABOUT ANDREA HERE.
DR. KRISTEN LIESCH
Kristen is co-director of Women’s Work Institute and Sum Strategy, a strategy firm totally obsessed with connecting the dots between equality, effectiveness and prosperity. She works with organizations to identify and address equality barriers through strategy, system and process changes, and by learning from the lived experiences of employees and stakeholders.
*This article engages in a discussion that is primarily located within - although not limited to - the lived experiences of heteronormative, heterosexual relationships in Western societies and focuses on child-care responsibilities (though the conversation could inform to discussions of elder care and the dynamics of other domestic relationships and arrangements.)