Don’t Let Covid Drive a Reversion to Traditional Gender Roles

Before covid-19 threw the world into chaos, women breadwinners were a rapidly growing demographic across every swath of American society. Their rising economic power was accompanied by increasing power in the domestic realm as well, albeit more slowly. What happens to that power now that so many women are back in the home full-time?

The pandemic hasn’t eliminated the phenomenon of women breadwinners by any means, but it has thrown a wrench into millions of households through layoffs that hit women harder than men.[i] Even more significant is the number of women who left the workforce on a “voluntary” basis. That’s in quotes because whether it’s a need to educate and care for kids or to protect vulnerable family members, in many cases there’s just no viable alternative to quitting work.[ii]

Once at home, it’s convenient for women to take on more of the household’s domestic labor burden: cleaning, cooking, laundry and childcare. Funny thing about that — women already do more housework than their male partners[iii] even when it is the woman who earns more.[iv] But that pre-existing imbalance hasn’t prevented women from increasing their share of the housework even more.[v]

Similarly, women tend to be the parent who oversees the education of the family’s children, and this pattern has become more pronounced during the pandemic.[vi]

Housework is one thing but power around money within the household is quite another. Or is it? Sociologists have identified three metrics as clear indicators of power, as it pertains to money, within domestic relationships:

· Who does the housework
· How the couple pools or divides household income
· How discretionary money is used

In reality, housework is intimately related to power dynamics. Doing more of it because you’re at home makes sense on the one hand, but it tilts the relationship noticeably. For the millions of women who left the workforce (and lost the ability to save for their future), there’s a serious risk that the power dynamics around money in the household may shift again, reverting to an earlier model where women were subservient and economically powerless.

This is a complex issue, but I suggest women in this situation pursue a two-pronged approach to ensure a healthy financial future as well as a healthy relationship.

First, women should begin looking at work through a different lens. You got laid off…or you had to quit your job to run the homeschooling operation when your kids’ school moved to a virtual model. It’s months later, but you’re still at home and not sure what to do.

It’s time to look at providing basic consulting services with the skills you already have. After all, you’re good at your job. But the truth is, you need an arrangement where you’re more in control of the timing and location of the work itself — and where you don’t have to report to anyone about your productivity or which tasks you’ve checked off today. Sometimes meeting your second-grader’s needs mean you don’t get any work-related tasks done before he goes to bed, and that’s just got to be okay.

As a coach or consultant you can dial it up or down as you see fit, not actually being in the business but using your knowledge of it just the same, along with the network you’ve built. How can you leverage and monetize your unique skills? Think about your superpowers; where are you a subject matter expert?

The relationships you’ve established within your industry can probably lead to enough consulting hours to get you started. Evaluate your network in practical terms: Who should you be systematically running meetings with to drum up a little work? How will you begin conducting reachouts?

Focus on keeping existing connections strong and building on them, because between your network and your skills you have everything it takes to create a career in your field that actually works for you and your family.

The second prong is taking a conscious approach to managing changes in household income. If one partner starts earning less or no income, both partners need to take an honest look at the household finances. What needs to shift? Is it a healthy shift, and is everyone okay with it?

Figure out how you structure household spending. Is the at-home partner responsible for more than half of the housework and childcare (whether or not they’re earning)? If so, then that partner should receive an appropriate share of the household income. That allows both partners to continue funding household expenses at some level.

Also look at discretionary money. It’s common for women to devote more of their discretionary funds to children’s activities and other expenditures that benefit the family, rather than the individual, whereas men’s discretionary income often goes toward personal interests and hobbies[vii]. That may need to shift if her income is significantly reduced.

Beyond immediate spending, consider options to maintain financial fairness and equity over the long term. If she’s no longer working at a traditional job with a 401K, then she’s not accumulating assets in her name as she was before.

That’s creating a balance sheet disparity between his assets and hers, so it’s important to evaluate strategies for keeping assets more equalized. Can some of his cashflow fund her IRA, or perhaps a brokerage account in her name? Are there other suitable places for his cashflow to generate savings dedicated for her use?

I get that it can be uncomfortable. But truly, if this is a tough conversation or one that creates tension then it is long overdue. In fact, this discussion should spark a bigger conversation about the financial parity and power dynamics between you and your partner.

Nobody’s happy about the economic fallout from covid, much less its health effects. But if dealing with the pandemic provokes a fairer, more effective partnership and a more functional approach to work for women, then at least we’ve found a silver lining for which to be grateful.

[i] https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/QF-Breadwinner-Mothers-by-Race-FINAL.pdf

[ii] Collins, C., Ruppanner, L., Landivar, L. C., & Scarborough, W. (2021, January 21). The Gendered Consequences of a Weak Infrastructure of Care: School Reopening Plans and Parents’ Employment During the COVID-19 Pandemic

[iii] Sarah Jane Glynn, “An Unequal Division of Labor” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2018), https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/reports/2018/05/18/450972/unequal-division-labor/.

[iv] Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica, Jessica Pan. “Gender Identity and Relative Income within Households.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 130, Issue 2, May 2015, Pages 571–614. https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjv001

[v] Carlson, Daniel L., Richard Petts, and Joanna Pepin. 2020. Changes in parents’ domestic labor during the COVID-19 pandemic. SocArXiv.

[vi] Petts, Richard, Daniel L. Carlson, and Joanna Pepin.2020. A gendered pandemic: Childcare, homeschooling, and parents’ employment during COVID-19. SocArXiv.

[vii] Sonya Lutter Interview https://youtu.be/_XS8HJ4OLD0