Let’s be clear: Sexual discrimination and harassment in any form, at any time, are unacceptable. They should never be tolerated in the workplace — or in any other setting for that matter.
But for many women that’s not the only, or the main, obstacle to career advancement. Rather, they tell us, what’s really holding them back is the combined effect of managing both a daytime job and a second job: the incessant responsibilities of household and family care. This home-management load is constant, under-recognized, unpaid, and falls disproportionately on women.
Some companies would argue that what happens in employees’ homes isn’t their concern. Given that work and home lives are intertwined, companies need to better understand how domestic burdens are affecting women’s work lives — and often not for the better.
To quantify this, Boston Consulting Group surveyed more than 6,500 employees worldwide in 2019, seeking information on who bears responsibility for such common household tasks as grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, paying bills, and yard work. Because we wanted to look specifically at the dynamic between men and women in working families, we sought out participants in committed, heterosexual relationships.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that the distribution of time-intensive household chores remains heavily skewed along traditional gender lines, even in households where both the man and woman work full time. Women are nearly twice as likely as men to have primary responsibility for everyday household chores such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, and doing dishes — tasks that are time sensitive and occur frequently. Women tend to shoulder the primary responsibility for them.
While younger generations of men are taking on more household chores, they’re often tasks that can be time-shifted, such as finances and yard work.
Women also disproportionately take on the highly stressful — and often underappreciated — burden of orchestrating and managing everything, from doctor’s appointments to school lunches and play dates. As a result, men get more time and mental capacity to focus on their careers.
When women take on the task of both organizing and executing a significant part of the chores, it ends up representing 75% of the work. Who wouldn’t be stressed?
If employers fully value women employees, they should help lighten this load. Company leaders, especially male leaders, should serve as role models, taking advantage of flexible work programs, paternity leave, and other activities intended to help employees balance work and home. Many companies have leave policies for new parents and employees caring for sick or elderly loved ones, but individuals taking advantage of these policies may fear they’ll be stigmatized. If executives started participating, and visibly supporting others who take advantage of the policies, everyone will see it’s OK.
In the final analysis, dual-career couples need to work out the details themselves. This shouldn’t be about men “helping” or women “delegating.” It should be about sharing responsibilities at home so both can succeed in their careers.
In some cases, women will need to step away from tasks they’ve shifted to their partners. This may involve changing their expectations for exactly how things get done. That’s a small price to pay. From an economic perspective, it’s not about absolute advantage (who does the task best) but about comparative advantage (what’s the most efficient way to share the work). For some couples, this may involve outsourcing low-value tasks when possible and affordable, and leveraging digital technology.
Sexual discrimination is a serious problem. Employers must deal with situations quickly and resolutely. But they also need to look at the bigger picture. In many cases, what’s holding women back is the overload at home, not what’s happening at work.
Matt Krentz is the Diversity & Inclusion and Leadership Chair at Boston Consulting Group, a global consulting firm, and co-author of the group’s report, “Lightening the Mental Load That Holds Women Back.” He wrote this originally for InsideSources.com.