Lockdown came as a shock to everyone. We were all unprepared, caught off guard and scrambling to make sense of this huge and scary thing. Slowly, we all figured out how to make it work; we got used to online learning, working from home, sharing the laptop chargers and working out a routine of who needed quiet time and when.
Childcare became a massive bone of contention for many couples. If you were both in Zoom meetings, how did you decide who looked after young children? Who did the cooking fall to most often? Who supervised the online learning to make sure the kids were up and dressed for online school?
New studies show that not only did women take on the bulk of childcare when both parents were working from home, but that they experienced a perceived decrease in both job satisfaction and productivity.
So how much work can actually be done in an ‘enforced flexible workplace’? Usually when people choose to enter a more flexible work schedule and environment there is an expected and contractual reduction in hours and it's a popular option with first time parents. But when this flexible work environment is enforced by something like a pandemic, it fails to account for daily stressors and time constraints, like children, partners working from home, reliable internet or suitable work space and yet expects a similar amount of productivity in spite of these challenges. This means someone has to pick up the slack and unless pandemic working from home policy changes, these challenges will continue to fall to women.
Despite the positives of working from home that some people report experiencing, it can’t outweigh the stressors of things like ‘increasing likelihood of economic recession and potential job losses, increased social isolation and “Zoom exhaustion”’. And in many cases for women, lockdown has meant a return to traditional gender roles on top of the modern pressures and demands of a career.
In studies previous to the pandemic, it has been found that a) women and men experience the same job satisfaction and production rate b) women working from home are more likely than men working from home to experience a blurring of boundaries between work and family life and c) women have been shown to use the time saved from not commuting to engage in home labour like childcare and housework. And the pandemic has not only altered the satisfaction and production rates, but has also exacerbated the problems with b) and c).
While societal attitudes have shifted in recent years, with fathers expected not only to play provider but also be a more involved caregiver, and mothers becoming providers as well as caregivers, the shift that Covid-19 has caused has resulted in not only work burnout but also parental burnout. While both parents are suffering from this enforced merging of home and work life, it is women’s work life that is suffering most.
Post-pandemic job satisfaction and productivity rates have fallen for women as the two worlds collide. Though women were also more likely to take on more responsibility in the home and care life pre-pandemic anyway, the merging of these two lives and the added burden of increased mess and childcare due to remote learning has pushed their work-life balance to the edge. As a result, they are seeing a perceived decline in productivity and job satisfaction creating a gender gap in these areas that did not exist before the pandemic.
Feng and Savani’s 2020 study published in ‘Gender in Management’ was conducted between April and May 2020 in the U.S. when it was in lockdown. It examined Amazon full-time employees who were living with a romantic partner, and whose partner was also employed full-time. Participants had to rate their work productivity and job satisfaction both before and after the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak. All participants had children living at home.
Unsurprisingly, both men and women reported spending more hours per day on housework and childcare during Covid-19 lockdown than before Covid-19.
But the increase was about 27% larger for women in terms of household duties.
If this is the ‘new normal’ it creates an unsustainable work life for women and is a boundary to them experiencing a satisfying and productive but contained career. Their perceived ‘unproductivity’ will be a boundary for promotion and their dissatisfaction with their work-life balance will create a ‘this or that’ approach to family life or work life. With remote working reducing the cost of a company’s real estate, many large organisations are thinking of switching to remote working permanently. And a decision as big as that should be made with their employee’s wellbeing and equality in mind.
(Covid-19 created a gender gap in perceived work productivity and job satisfaction: implications for dual-career parents working from home Zhiyu Feng et al., Gender in Management: An International Journal, 2020)
(Enforced remote working and the work-life interface during lockdown Deirdre Anderson et al., Gender in Management: An International Journal, 2020)