Parents working from home are suddenly having a new conversation about equality

Kitchen sink drama.
Kitchen sink drama.
Image: Reuters/Yara Nardi
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On Monday, March 23rd, the UK’s schools and childcare facilities for younger kids closed. From that day everyone was urged to stay at home except for food shopping, essential work, and very limited exercise, as the coronavirus pandemic swept through the nation. In many households, both parents are now attempting to work from home alongside their children, a radical alteration to families’ circumstances that has already been playing out in China, Italy, some US states, and many other places.

As a consequence, for the first time since their kids were newborn, some couples with careers are having difficult conversations that expose fundamental, implicit assumptions they may never have had to address directly: Whose job is more important? When kids have unexpected needs, who tends to deal with them by default?

These negotiations will be tough. Not least because layered on top of the personal dynamics are fears of getting sick and losing family, plus existential dread. It’s all happened suddenly, and comes with other emotionally taxing conditions, like social distancing.

But being forced to tackle these issues head on is also a unique opportunity. It’s possible that the extremity of the circumstances will push some families into a new order of honest communication which could break some of the deepest, most hard-to-see drivers of gender inequality. At the same time, employers are having to bend and flex as never before, and are being forced to accommodate types of working that many have hitherto resisted.

It’s possible that being pushed back into the nucleus of our nuclear families will lead to societal change that 70 years of feminism haven’t achieved as many are forced to ask: Is my partnership truly equal?

An equality crossroads

Helen Lewis wrote in The Atlantic that coronavirus will be a disaster for feminism. It’s a convincing and depressing argument that takes in data from other epidemics like Ebola to show that women’s work and pay tend to get hit quicker and stay depressed longer after a crisis. Caring duties, of which there are more during a pandemic, fall disproportionately on women, and domestic violence will likely rise if people are trapped at home with abusive partners.

But there is a subset of people for whom it might not be true: parents whose circumstances and arrangements seemed perfectly “fair,” in that they appeared to give both partners a shot at their career goals—until coronavirus hit. Some of these people are having difficult conversations right now, because the extremity of the situation is shining a harsh light into all the areas that were previously allowed to remain grey: Who leaves work if a child is sick? How do you choose which parent works long hours when both have a big project at the same time? In these days without childcare or school, one partner can’t easily take the hit, because the hit is huge.

“Every day I hear about couples really struggling with the lockdown partly because the proximity amplifies all the things they have pretended to know about each other, but never really sorted out,” said Jennifer Petriglieri, an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD business school in Paris, in an email. Petriglieri is the author of Couples That Work, a book about dual-career couples, in which she notes that many couples feel perfectly equal in their careers until a “hurdle” arises, like the birth of a child or a potential relocation for work. Power asymmetries can develop almost unseen, and assumptions can remain unchallenged, until such decisions arise. How well couples deal with the hurdles will relate to how satisfied they end up feeling about both their work and their relationship. The pandemic, of course, is a unique, sudden, and intense hurdle.

Power asymmetries—like an unspoken idea that one person’s needs or job take precedence—”might be muted for the most part and only burst out in moments when there is a choice to make,” Petriglieri said. “And even then those might be covered up with money—flying in grandparents etc. But when couples are home all day, every day, with little support, the deal they really have (not the one they tell themselves they have) becomes really apparent.”

Women’s rise towards equality has been meteoric since they entered the workforce in large numbers, but seems to have stalled. Arguably, it’s the ways we—in relationships and in companies—still perpetuate gender norms that keep women paid less and out of power. Maybe some couples have the opportunity to chart a new path for themselves—and for society.

All about the money

When couples have to choose whose job to prioritize, the default is very often economic. One person needs to go down to part-time? Usually the calculation is obvious: Prioritize the job of the higher earner. One problem with this logic is that because women are systemically paid less than men, prioritizing the person who makes more money in a heterosexual couple often means prioritizing the man. But another, Petriglieri writes in her book, is that maximizing financial return isn’t necessarily what will make every couple happiest. Life satisfaction and earnings aren’t perfectly correlated. In a 2010 study, psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton found that life evaluation—how satisfied people felt looking at their lives as a whole—was fairly well correlated with earnings. But emotional wellbeing—how people actually felt on a given day—had much more to do with factors like health, caregiving, and loneliness. A related study by the same authors found that rising income did make a difference to people’s happiness, but only up to a threshold of $75,000 a year, after which it didn’t significantly change. 

This very specific moment of coronavirus quarantine also throws economic decision-making into a new light.

For a couple working from home with a small child, for example, one way to divide childcare is 50:50, in which case both jobs takes a hit in terms of business hours available. Another way is to give work priority to the person who earns more, or whose job is “less flexible.” An obvious reason is to protect that higher-earning job, because of a fear of being fired for failing to perform. That fear may be legitimate. But it also might be the result of a kind of thinking held over from normal times. We’re not in normal times.

The pandemic is forcing employers across the world to rethink what flexibility, or the lack of it, truly means. Is it the willingness to give a few inches when one individual employee has a specific need? Or is it an acknowledgement that every employee has a spectrum of needs that exists alongside work, including, commonly and for both genders, parenting? After all, that’s the kind of flexibility being increasingly demanded by younger generations entering the workforce.

Of course, the reality of economic turmoil is making employees fearful for their jobs. But there are other realities to remember: That this is happening to everyone, at the same time, giving individual negotiation the weight of collective need. That when the crisis is over, the loyal staff will be those who have been supported by their employers, not wrung dry by work’s impossible demands. And that the relationships that will be strengthened rather than broken by this time will be the ones where both partners feel they’ve had a fair go chance at making working from home work.

Couple contracting

Couples grappling with new negotiations over equity might look to Petriglieri’s idea of couple contracting: Essentially, holding regular, honest conversations in which couples discuss their values, boundaries, and fears. The “contract” isn’t a set-in-stone pledge, but a dynamic agreement to which both subscribe, and which can help identify “deal-breakers.”

Coronavirus arrangements should be based on values first, Petriglieri says. “Couples need to work from principles up to practicalities—its not helpful to dive straight into devising a schedule of who gets to work when,” she says.

By principles, Petriglieri explains, she means three things: First, the specific priorities each person has over the coming month, which are likely to have shifted since the crisis began. (This should be revisited at least every month, hence that timeframe.) Second, given this, how to prioritize each person’s work, whether that’s a 50:50 split or one person taking more of a hit. Third, couples need to discuss boundaries like place—who works where?—and how much time each person can reasonably expect to have for work, for exercise, for alone time.

“Once couples have talked through these points they will have a logic for the decisions about who gets to work when,” Petriglieri says. “It’s much more likely both partners perceive the agreements as fair if they understand and agree [on] the underlying principles behind them.”

It’s hard to believe the current situation can truly have any silver linings. But as individuals and as couples, we do have the choice of how to approach it. We can find ourselves locked in combat, or trying to listen to and compromise with each other (or, often, both). We can run ourselves ragged trying to deliver the same amount of work as we managed pre-coronavirus, or demand that our employers support this changed reality (or, often, both).

If nothing else, this is a time for new conversations: About the virus that sickens us, of course. But also about what makes us equally thrive.