It is no secret that women are more often the primary carers in opposite-sex families.

They bear the lion’s share of emotional labour and unpaid undervalued work in the household (and in the labour market for that matter).

The gender pay gap is narrowing (very slowly), and we have fought hard for decades to overcome societal and institutional challenges to get a “seat at the table”. A critical enabler to this was a support system that involved childcare, outsourced home care and family support.

This support system removed the physical need for us, as parents, to do “it all” and provided women with an increased ability to work full-time hours – even if the mental load remained.   

With the arrival of COVID-19 and an unexpected shift to sheltering at home, that system collapsed. The types of jobs and industries that women occupy put them at higher risk of job loss in the wake of the pandemic. That risk is also heightened by traditional gender roles, coupled with the current status of gender equality in leadership where men still vastly outnumber and out-earn women.

Working women and women’s work

The introduction of social distancing – a term none of us had heard of 8 weeks ago – abruptly cut the tether that connected us all to the community, family, and vital supports that were the foundation of our lives. One day we woke up to a world in which we couldn’t spend time with family members that weren’t in our homes. There was nowhere for children to go during the day; no school, daycare, afterschool programs, camps or weekend activities. For those caring for children with disabilities and special needs, no therapies, community support or respite. And, families that relied on support services like house-cleaning, meal prep, laundry service or in-home child care were suddenly bringing all that work in-house, leaving the providers, mostly women, unemployed. 

Not only did our support system disappear virtually overnight, but the workload doubled. Suddenly we are project managing the planning and execution of homeschooling, daily activities, connections with friends and family (virtual playdates), and juggling the additional demands of keeping house such as planning meals with limited access to groceries. And of course, working our full-time job from home or trying to secure a new position in one of the most competitive job markets in 10 years. 

Some households will have gone back to the 1950s in gender roles, while others will have shifted to a more equitable sharing of the additional workload  – but will it be enough to prevent a backwards slide on the progress we have made in women’s contribution to work outside the home?

The cost of carrying the mental load

Work equity for women has come a long way, but the truth remains. The mental load, sometimes called emotional labour or caring responsibilities –  the management of household responsibilities – still falls to women in most cases.

Here are some of the conversations happening in my community of professional career women – these conversations are not happening in my partner’s Facebook feed:

“I asked my partner to upload the kids’ homework from today. He said, ‘sure, how?’.  In response, I held up the email we both got from his teacher. He then asked, ‘what has to be uploaded?’ – I told him to follow the instructions. ‘Pretend I was dead. What would you do then?’, I said.  ‘Do that.’ ” These conversations are happening between friends and families across Canada. 

“I came back from maternity leave less than a year ago and was finally getting my footing before this happened. Now anything that was helping me make it work is gone… no daycare, housekeeper, supportive mentors and colleagues in the office (phone calls aren’t the same). It was manageable in “survival mode” for the first month, but how long can we continue treading water…”

The ripples have a lasting effect. 

In March, more than 1,000,000 people lost their jobs in Canada, and the stats show that in the core-age population (25 to 54 years), there were more losses among women than men. The monthly decline in employment for women was more than twice that of men. And nearly half of the decrease among women was from part-time employment1. The number of women in this age group who lost all or the majority of their usual hours increased by +433.3% from February to March. This represents 19.2% of employed women in this age group.

It is also important to consider that the male is the higher-wage earner in most male/female partnerships. In 2016, Stats Can reported that men continue to earn an appreciably higher income in fully half of all opposite-sex couples, while women earned the larger share in just 17.3 per cent of cases.  Cassandra Szklarski, a reporter for the CBC, called this “a glaring difference, although significantly better than in 1985, when nearly three-quarters of the men made more, compared with just eight per cent of the women”.2

The gender gap persists in same-sex couples, too: male couples earned a median income of $100,707 in 2015, compared with $92,857 for female couples. This puts women at a distinct disadvantage at work during this time. For starters, someone needs to care for the children. Countless women who were laid off or let go have had to put job hunting on hold to take on additional family responsibilities. 

Those still working had no choice but to layer the additional workload on top of their paid work, or voluntarily step away from paid work. 

For instance, one woman in our community said, “I volunteered to take the redundancy package as my son has special needs, and he is an only child. There was no way we could both continue to work and homeschool. Given the economy, it made more sense for it to be me.”

Government officials and news outlets are predicting this could go on for up to 18 months.

The issue is compounded by the uncertainty of what lies ahead. Small businesses like daycares, coworking spaces like Toronto’s The Workaround that offer onsite childcare, and others that provide kids programming may not survive this shutdown, leaving many without a childcare space once things settle in the new normal. This will only compound the existing challenges cities like Toronto already have with access to affordable childcare multi-year waitlist.  

Closures would also affect summer programming, camps and afterschool programs. Grandparents are at an age where they are particularly vulnerable, further reducing options for women who hold traditional 9-5 office jobs. 

Most women who make the choice to take a leave won’t have enough vacation or sick time to weather a storm that lasts for more than 6 months. And those who are self-employed may not have clients to return too, as the work moves on to available providers. Many are trying to carry the responsibilities of both work and home, but is shouldering the workload in the house, while employed feasible?

“It’s unfortunate, but it is also reality. My partner needs to be at his desk from 7 am until 4 pm. My role is more flexible, so I can get up before the kids to work and again later in the evening. Saturdays are my favourite days – I get to work uninterrupted! It is working for now, but I am exhausted. It’s just not sustainable,” said a woman who runs her own business.

Overnight, COVID-19 changed how we all work. It might be for the better.

Suddenly, flexible work and work-from-home were not just a luxury afforded to those who had lobbied for the opportunity. In only three weeks, it just became how business was done. Expectations for work hours and productivity shifted quickly and easily to accommodate the increased demands placed on employees. According to Statistics Canada 4.7 million Canadians who do not usually work from home did so during the week of March 22 to 28.

At tellent, we conducted a flash survey. We learned that respondents anticipate that employees will expect greater access to flexible work arrangements after physical distancing measures are loosened and that employers will be more comfortable with and open to these new work arrangements. This work from home experiment has resulted in a seismic shift in institutional mindsets around flexible work and productivity.

There is no such thing as secret parenting or caregiving anymore.

Routines and work-life boundaries have dissolved completely. Gone are the days when we enter the office and politely pretend that the children we care for the other 16 hours of the day don’t exist, and that work is 100 percent our main priority 24/7. Now that the children are popping into Zoom meetings to say Hello, sometimes without pants, employers have no choice but to adapt. And they are! According to the Conference Board of Canada, organizations are offering employees who cannot work their regular working hours due to caregiving needs flexible working hours, reduced hours and compressed workweeks.

Employers are thinking ahead about the ripples and impact of work and family demands in the future and are making plans to help employees balance those demands long-term. In the report “The long-term implications of COVID-19; What HR Needs to Know” Gartner states that Diversity and Inclusion leaders will need to be involved in role design and creation of flexible work systems to ensure that employees of all backgrounds and needs are considered when the organization designs new workflows.

We agree wholeheartedly – management systems that recognize output or results rather than hours worked and consider the effort that happens outside the office will be the ones who propel gender equity forward. 

The potential for a world where gender equality is inherent in how we do business could be a silver lining in this ordeal. Inclusive leadership, willing to invest in policy changes that champion flexible opportunities, embracing work and productivity in all its forms will reap the rewards of a more equitable and profitable future of work… 

 If we pay attention to the lessons we are being offered from this situation.