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Gender penalty: what women have lost to COVID-19

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Prior to the pandemic, women’s continuing under-representation in leadership roles and male-dominated careers was put down to the work–life narrative: 73% of men and 85% of women in a 2012 survey of Harvard alumni attributed women’s stalled progress to it.

Yet the pre-pandemic research showed that the challenge of balancing work and family commitments wasn’t the issue. Both men and women experience it. The issue is that the challenge is managed differently by men and women.

Difference in gender expectations

Women are encouraged to make work trade-offs in order to meet family demands, typically reducing hours to work part-time and/or changing to less demanding roles.

Men experience the conflicts of work and family, but few make work trade-offs in order to devote more time to family. Instead, they trade-off time with their family and the penalty is in relationships and non-work activities.

Women’s trade-offs derail their careers: key experiences, power, status and income are sacrificed.

It’s the work culture of long hours, overwork and presenteeism that fuels the need for trade-offs. Women pay a high professional penalty, men a high personal penalty.

The gender-specific trade-offs for men and women confirm the prevalence of the gender-role stereotype: women and family, men and work.

Remote work expectations

Has the remote work experiment of the past six months done anything to challenge this construction of gender roles or change the work–life narrative? What has happened in terms of penalties? Has the (assumed) increased flexibility of remote work reduced the penalties for women?

Not according to Leanin.org, who reported in May that US women with families who worked full-time spent 71 hours per week on housework and caregiving post-pandemic, compared with men doing 51 hours. They called this the "double double shift" penalty.

A McKinsey survey reported in June that mothers felt less effective, less engaged and had lower wellbeing than fathers. Mothers reported that their top priority was balancing work and private life; it didn’t feature at all in men’s top 10 priorities.

"I feel like I am a 1950s housewife" or "I feel like the scales have tipped. Now my husband is doing as much or more supervisory care than me. Yippee!" These are the two vastly diverging responses from Australian research that compared the division of labour before and during COVID-19. Men did more child care but not more housework; the researchers suggest this is perhaps because it’s more rewarding than washing the dishes.

Most of the impact of remote work, whether positive or negative, continues to be framed within the work–life narrative, rather than explore the cultural expectations that give rise to work demands.

One noteworthy analysis of pre- versus post-COVID meeting patterns gives a first glimpse of how work demands have changed. The data from three million workers in 16 cities shows that people attended more but shorter meetings and that the length of the workday increased by 48 minutes. That suggests, unsurprisingly, that the change from face-to-face to remote work in and of itself is not going to disrupt workplace culture for the better.

Despite the promise that remote work holds for increased work flexibility, it seems like we’re transplanting unhelpful workplace cultures into our homes. We need to pay less attention to the work–life narrative and more to challenging work cultures and expectations. Without this, career penalties for women will remain firmly entrenched because gender roles remain buried beneath a pile of laundry.

Dr. Karen Morley is a highly sought after Executive Coach, an authority on leadership coaching, and a thought leader on gender and inclusion.

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