The meeting, the deadline, the presentation, the politics—the demands of work are plenty for most people to handle. But for many women, this isn’t all they do. Their professional work is compounded by the disproportionate amount of work they do at home, which sociologists call a second shift.
Though growing numbers of women are in the workforce, women continue to perform most of the work at home. Studies have found that married women, especially high-earners, do more housework and child-rearing than their husbands (in same-sex couples, one study found the more “feminine” partner does more chores). If women were paid for things like taking care of elderly parents and children, or cleaning and cooking, they would add $28 trillion to the global economy, by some estimates.
“We’re in this period where work is changing [because more women are working], but the home life hasn’t successfully caught up,” says Jessica Beck, the co-founder and COO of Hello Alfred, a company that works with property managers and developers to provide home services to tenants.
The bad news: the pressure of the second shift is pushing some women out of the workforce.
The only way for women to stop this from happening is for those women to have help. “If you ask women how they stayed in their career, they will say ‘I had help,’” says Marcela Sapone, the co-founder and CEO of Hello Alfred.
In 2011, census data showed that 88% of children of working mothers had regular childcare. Maybe a woman’s mother lived with her to take care of children, or she was able to hire a nanny, or sent her children to daycare, or some combination of all of these. “The secret is that successful people have help. Help is a four-letter word in our culture. It’s difficult to ask for help, and it’s not obvious where to ask. It’s not accessible. Plus we have this feeling of ‘I can do everything myself,’” Sapone says.
Sapone and Beck created Hello Alfred with the intention of helping women shoulder the second shift, but they didn’t frame their company’s mission as specifically gendered. “For us, when we think about how we make change in the world, it’s not about convincing women [to use our service], but it’s about bringing men along for the ride,” Sapone says. So they changed the way they framed their company’s mission. “We focused on the message that we need more time in our lives. It’s the only non-renewable asset, so let us take care of things that need to happen in your home,” she says.
“It’s not about the groceries and dry cleaning and home cleaning. It’s just about time. And about being intentional about where the time is going and what you can delegate,” Beck says.
Lots of other companies have risen to the task of providing women with the help they need at home. In the US, Task Rabbit, Care.com, and Handy are only a handful of such organizations; there are lots more internationally.
But, many argue, the private sector can only go so far towards helping women gain control of the second shift. After all, childcare isn’t affordable for everyone—childcare alone can cost up to 36% of a family’s income. Without government policies that provide women and men with guaranteed paid family leave and affordable childcare, plus corporate policies that allow workers to schedule shifts well in advance and that encourage flexible work hours, the second shift will persist. So, too, will its harmful effect on women’s careers.
“We can’t stop promising women they can be leaders until they address this problem. It hasn’t changed,” Sapone says.
This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.