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Daniel Godsall

WOMBA Limited


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Equality begins at home: men step up, women step back


According to research conducted by McKinsey and Lean In for, in households where both partners work full time, 41% of women report doing more childcare and 30% report doing more chores.

Furthermore, there is little evidence the next generation is striking a better balance. Although younger couples split household chores more evenly, women under thirty still do a majority of child care.

(Alas there are no corresponding insights about whether this imbalance shows up in same sex partnerships. That’s a gap in our understanding that needs to be filled.)

A 'dismal picture' of men's participation

On the face of it this data paints a pretty dismal picture of mens’ participation in the running of their household.

Is it the case that men are relaxing in front of the TV after a hard day at the office while their partners swap paid work for unpaid labour? Possibly yes, in a handful of cases. But it seems unlikely that’s the principal cause for most.

There are other possibilities: the male partner may have a more demanding paid job and less time available for other essential activities. Or, if you consider the much reported gender pay gap, it could be that his salary is greater, so they have decided it makes less financial sense for him to take as much responsibility as her. We see this a lot in decisions about one partner downsizing their role: that finance, not fulfilment, is the deciding factor.

An even distribution of unpaid work?

It’s probably true that some men contribute in other ways; perhaps bearing the brunt of other home related work. The male partner may feel there is an even distribution of unpaid work, even if it is not from within the same category.

But now we’re heading into the genderisation of chores, which sees men more likely to empty the bins than do the ironing.

Do we even know what's going on?

It could be any or none of these things. We don’t know what is going on in those households where women report doing more.

And that’s the problem with quantitative data; it’s impossible to pinpoint the underlying cause(s). Like the glare of a moody teenager unwilling or unable to express their emotions, you know something is wrong, but you don’t know what it is.

Fortunately there are sources of qualitative data that offer other tantalising insights. Take for example the work of Laura Radcliffe from the University of Liverpool Management School and Catherine Cassell from Leeds University, whose joint research explores the impact of flexible working on the daily experiences of work– family conflict for dual-earner couples with child dependants.

A look at 'maternal gatekeeping'

One of the interesting themes in their research is the occurrence of maternal gatekeeping – conceptualised as the mother imposing some degree of restriction on the father’s involvement with children (Allen & Hawkins, 1999), or more recently updated by Puhlman and Pasley (2013) who suggest this involves any attempt, conscious or subconscious, by the mother, to influence father involvement in, and interaction with, the children via controlling, facilitative, and restrictive behaviours.

A recent experience of coaching one of the senior leadership team from a leading retailer highlighted the consequences of this behaviour.

She was describing her lack of focus since returning from maternity leave. It quickly became apparent this stemmed in part from her reluctance to relinquish responsibility for child care to other members of her family.

That morning she’d felt compelled to send three texts to her mother, and the night before had enjoyed little sleep because only she was able to settle her poorly daughter.

No wonder she was finding it difficult to focus at work; her overhwelming compulsion to preserve established routines meant her attention was almost always trying to be in two places at once. Furthermore she was having to deal with the emotional fall out from her actions: frustration with her mother when requests were missed or ignored, and placating guilty apologies from her husband, all of which was robbing her of more energy.

To her credit, she immediately changed her approach. When, that evening, her daughter needed attention she let her husband take the lead, resulting in a full night’s sleep for her and validation for him who, it turned out, was capable of caring for their daughter’s night time needs.

The pressure to 'get it right'

Research into maternal gatekeeping is limited, and reasons why women engage in it are not entirely clear.

Beyond doubt though is the significant pressure on new mothers to get it right: whether that’s from families, friends, peers, society, or their internal drive to be a good mother.

And as any new parents knows, there’s that eternal quest for the magic formula that will help your baby sleep, eat, and be happy. Small wonder then that once an effective routine has been established some parents do everything in their power to protect it.

Laura and Catherine’s research did reveal that when men worked flexibly the occurrence of maternal gatekeeping was lower.

Conversely, when only the woman worked flexibly, it was more prevalent. If ever there was a case for making family friendly policies as accessible to men as they are to women, perhaps this is it.

Is 'genderisation' of chores so bad?

Another important point to consider is the genderisation of household chores. The question here: is it so terrible if one partner cooks while the other mows the lawn?

In one sense – that of equal time and effort spent maintaining a home – perhaps not.

However, if it converts into the idea that some chores are exclusively hers, and some exclusively his, then that’s not so good.

For one thing, as the frequency of some tasks is greater than others it means the division is unlikely ever to be equal. Furthermore it creates dependencies, potentially leaving neither party capable of managing independently.

This often shows up in retirement, when one spouse pre-deceases the other, and the remaining partner discovers they are incapable of providing for them self, or is left bewildered by their financial situation.

What of care-giving then in this balancing equation of:

                                    he do this: she does that = fair division of labour

Does this qualify in the same way that vacuuming does, or trimming the edges? If I spend the morning painting the shed while my wife takes the kids to the park, haven’t we invested equally in the work of being a family?

Caring for a child v swinging a paintbrush

To my mind the answer is no. Caring for children requires more physical, mental, and emotional effort than swinging a paint brush in the garden.

It is fun and rewarding spending time with our kids, but it isn’t just fun and rewarding.

Perhaps this lack of awareness that a partner who takes the lead in child care is always on is one of the main causes of inequality in the home. After all, once the shed is waterproofed you don’t have a sleepless night worrying about whether it needs another coat.

Paid versus unpaid work

The same goes for paid work versus unpaid work. Too often we hear of the stay at home partner bearing the brunt of sleep deprivation because the other has paid work to go to.

In my experience of being sleep deprived both as a senior executive and latterly during my seven months as a stay at home dad, I definitely found it easier to cope with being exhausted at work. In the office there are moments when you can allow your attention to drift.

If you plan well, you might get a short break to eat lunch and get some fresh air. And if you travel to work on the train you can always grab forty winks, if you don’t mind other travellers watching you drool.

The absence of luxuries

These are luxuries that are absent when caring for a baby. There are no breaks. When my then six month old son Jesse went down for a nap there was no respite. If I had any energy left it was spent quietly tidying up. And on those days when there was nothing left in the tank, when all I could do was flop down onto the sofa and pray he would sleep for more than thirty minutes, I was still hyper alert for the little peep from his room that signalled sleep time was over and I was going to have to work twice as hard that afternoon to entertain a slightly grumpy baby.

So the work of running a household can be separated into physical input-output tasks, like washing the dishes; and mentally and emotionally engaging tasks, such as entertaining a baby with the attention span of a gnat. If measured only in units of time, they may appear equal, but if measured in units of time, energy, attention, and emotional commitment, that equivalence evaporates.

Returning to the McKinsey data, the absence of qualitative data isn’t helpful. But by reviewing it alongside other research, and by considering the implications of the physical, mental, and emotional energy that different activities consume, we can begin to see why the current status quo is rendering it almost impossible for some women to put as much focus into their careers as their partners.

Both men and women need to change

There is no doubt that men should be more mindful of the way gender affects the division of household labour and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

But research from academics like Laura and Catherine also reveals the need for women to be conscious about how their actions may be hindering this.

In our interviews with successful career women we have observed some striking similarities that are enablers for their success.

All describe a level of equality in their significant relationships. Each has developed strategies for delegating responsibility to others, in their personal and professional lives.

And they have found ways of coping with feelings of guilt: through ruthless and unapologetic diary management; by being completely present when at home with their children; and, in rarer cases, by presenting a strong commercial case to their employer for a flexible working pattern.

They say you should practice what you preach. Therefore it feels only right to share mine and my wife’s data (validated with my wife). In our household the division of labour looks something like this:

  • Chores: 70:30 in my favour
  • Childcare: 65:35 in my wife’s favour
  • Being consciously alert to the changing needs of our little boy: 70:30 in my wife’s favour

Right now, these statistics work for us. There are moments when one or the other of us feels out of kilter; usually me when I lose sight of the emotional and mental effort my wife expends and focus instead on output measures, like who’s done the most laundry that week.

When these moments of irritation arise we talk about them and readjust. It’s a constant cycle of give and take and, if we decide to grow our family in the future, doubtless we’ll have to think again about how to make it work for us.

This ongoing process of resolving and renegotiating small disputes is essential. As one senior consultant with three children – one with special needs – shared with me recently, in her household, as she is the primary breadwinner, her husband assumes more responsibility for child care, particularly when dealing with illness or incidents that keep their children from school.

They make it work through ruthless planning, a shared Outlook calendar, and the use of humour.

“We often joke about me not knowing where the hoover lives or the fact the kids’ bedding hasn’t been changed for three weeks (they’re old enough to do it themselves is my excuse!).”

Appreciating the sacrifices

But above all else they have an appreciation of the sacrifices one or other is making for the sake of the family unit. It’s not always easy, and those feelings of guilt seem, for mothers in particular, to be an almost constant companion, but by being proactive, appreciative, and not taking it all too seriously, they have developed a rhythm that’s working.

For me, taking seven months to co-parent Jesse definitely helped. I now appreciate the commitment and energy consumption required in child rearing. Although I’d always thought of myself as a progressive, empathetic male, I only came to truly understand what it was like through doing it.

And now I am as capable as my wife.

There’s nothing she can do that I cannot (except for cutting Jesse’s nails which, after my first attempt, I am now banned from doing) so whether it’s soothing him back to sleep from a nightmare, or planning a days worth of activities, I feel as valid and as valued as I hope she does.

If we’re going to change those McKinsey statistics it’s clear that change is required by both partners in our relationships. But for that change to be effective it requires empathy, thoughtfulness, consideration, and humour.

As I discovered at 3:40am this morning, these qualities are often in short supply at the moments we need them most. But tonight I will go home, tell my wife to leave the laundry to me, then crack some of my favourite jokes until she either laughs or threatens to leave me, and we will both forget how impatient I can sometimes be when Jesse’s magic sleep formula stops working.

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Daniel Godsall


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