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Whose Job Wins? 3 Tips for Working Mothers in Negotiating WFH with Partners

Throughout COVID-19, working parents have tremendous pressure to do it all – teach and care for their children, attend to household needs, and of course, do their jobs. As of 2019, there are nearly 45 million working parents in the U.S. and nearly 15 million dual-career households. In a series of small daily decisions, each of these families, consciously or not, favors one parent’s job over the other. 

This experience has largely been different for working mothers than working fathers. Media stories abound voicing the challenges faced by working mothers, including a backslide in workplace gender equality, the heavier domestic burden borne by women, and the continuing unequitable division of labor and caretaking in most households. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes a specific section on the vulnerabilities women face as caretakers.

These challenges existed before, and are now brought to sharp focus during COVID-19. There lingers a deeply-rooted stereotype in our culture when it comes to gender roles – which (still) expect that men work, and women take care of kids. These stereotypes affect our home life, where women are more likely to take on additional household responsibilities, resulting in more unpaid work at home during their “second shift.”

This may be particularly challenging for entrepreneurs working at home, who can have more self-imposed demands that don’t abide by a typical timeline or schedule. So how do working parents these days decide who picks up the household chores, and who gets to focus on their career? In a 21st century dual household during COVID-19, whose jobs wins, and how can working mothers ensure that gender stereotypes don’t determine the winner?

We conducted a research project this summer to learn more. With interview and survey data collected from 54 working mothers, we learned how women made these complicated decisions. Located across ten states and multiple industries, these women all worked from home and had male partners. These were our findings for regaining control.

Three steps for working parents

  1. Proactively address job needs. Many couples did not pause to evaluate the added workload and proactively divide new home responsibilities in light of any job changes. Proactively discussing immediate job needs with partners allows parents to plan home responsibilities without regressing to old norms and unconscious gender bias. For example, one participant worked out “shifts” with her partner – she took the kids each morning, the entire family had lunch together, and then dad took the kids each afternoon. Another participant moved from working at a dining room table with her two kids homeschooling to a corner of her bedroom that she carved out as her new dedicated workspace. She then negotiated with her partner to take turns responding to their kids’ needs. Such approaches help parents attend to scheduled meetings and can promote focused work. Perhaps just as important, this arrangement allowed both to be involved in the heavy lifting involved in managing their kids’ needs and schooling on top of their own professional workloads. Through these discussions, partners can determine whether family and childcare responsibilities are fairly divided, and if not, how they should make a change.
  1. Establish availability boundaries with clients and colleagues. Similar communication needs to happen with work as well. Being vocal about needed flexibility may mean adjusting your schedule, attending calls on audio-only, or limiting availability to certain hours. One participant shared how she “saved her sanity” by not scheduling client meetings before 10 a.m. so that she could attend to her three school-age kids during frantic mornings. Some of the most challenging stories were from women who had clients or coworkers who did not have children themselves. This serves as an opportunity to check in with each other and share challenges that may be unfamiliar. As a mother entrepreneur, you can frame the conversation around how flexibility can benefit job productivity without burdening employees. This can help partnership with childless colleagues who feel they have to pick up the slack.
  1. Maintain laser focus on your career goals. Our data clearly show an increased level of anxiety and stress that working mothers are enduring, leading to many women deciding to leave the workforce or downsize their jobs. We also view the opportunity for women to focus on their career goals and growth, often in new directions. One participant saw her job intensify as childcare centers closed. She took a leave of absence and is now upskilling to pursue a new career path. Another participant coordinated with her partner to have him fully take on their children’s distance learning, so that she could focus on her growing business. Different families will make different arrangements; the point is, mom’s career goals should prominently factor in those decisions.

Work and home arrangements have changed dramatically, and uncontrollably. By recognizing where even small daily decisions can be made differently, households and entrepreneurs can take steps to ensure the onus isn’t on mothers alone. That is, it should not be the sole burden of working moms to self-advocate.

So as a female entrepreneur, with or without children, now is the time to ask: what steps can be taken to help yourself and your employees remain productive during uncertain times? Working mothers do have an important step they can take:  fiercely advocating for the support that they need.

Dana Sumpter, PhD, associate professor of organization theory and management at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, and Mona Zanhour, PhD, assistant professor of management at California State University, Long Beach.

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