This is the third blog in a series on what I learned during one year focusing on gender equality in my life and work.
Without airing all of our dirty laundry, I will say that the thing Adam and I bicker about most as husband and wife is domestic responsibilities. I don’t think we’re alone. In Australia, the latest census data show that employed women do more housework than employed men: In 2016, the average man did less than five hours of domestic work per week, while the average woman put in between five and 14 hours looking after the house and the kids, gardening and cooking, getting groceries and cleaning. (Interestingly, it appears that when men get wives, they start doing less housework, as the number of hours spent on chores is closer to equal for single men and women.)
Gender inequality at home is what inspired Gemma Hartley to write her Harper’s Bazaar article last year entitled “Women Aren’t Nags, We’re Fed Up.” The image accompanying her article shows a dish-glove-clad woman’s hand giving the finger. I stumbled upon this brilliant piece from a post by Melinda Gates on LinkedIn. (I found it strangely comforting to imagine Melinda and Bill Gates squabbling about whose turn it is to do the laundry.) This article struck a chord with me because of what our modern, supposedly equal families are teaching our kids. As Hartley wrote: “Unless I engage in this conversation on emotional labor and actively change the roles we inhabit, our children will do the same.”
Here’s the thing: Changing cultural gender roles takes time, it starts at home, and we’re not talking about gender inequality at home—with our families, at school, at work, or in the media. This is a problem.
When I first met Adam, we didn’t talk about division of household labor. Who does? That’s got to be the world’s most unromantic topic of conversation. We didn’t even talk about it during the three years we spent trying to get pregnant. By the time we were mooning over our newborn twins, we lost our chance. When you’re in the thick of parenting, particularly when you both work, you have very little time to talk about who does what. And so we fall back on what we know—what we saw modeled by our parents in our homes decades before.
My upbringing was rather unusual, at least for the early ‘80s. After my parents’ divorce, my mom made the decision to move five hours north, to Portland, Oregon, to attend medical school. My brother and I stayed in Southern Oregon with my dad. So my model for the role of the father was my dad, who showed up to all of my soccer games, volleyball matches, cross-country and track races, and speech-and-debate competitions. Dad monitored our homework and chores. And on weekends, he packed our ski stuff, dressed us in our long underwear, and sent us to sleep in the way back of our Suburban. At 4:30 in the morning, he got in the car and started the three-hour drive to Mt. Bachelor, where he unloaded groggy, cranky kids, and taught us how to ski. (This was back when it was acceptable to have your kids sleep in the back of a cold car parked outside in the middle of winter.) Adam’s father, while involved, was more distant, and his parents’ roles were more traditional.
Perhaps because of the fact that I was raised by my dad, I have been thinking about gender roles at home since long before I got married and had a family. In college in 1995, I put together a project I called “Having It All: An Oral History of Three Women Journalists.” I wanted to learn how personal matters affected my professors’ career decisions, and vice versa.
With tears in her eyes, one professor told me she had quit her promising newspaper career so she could look after her young children. Years later, she returned to the paper to show her son around, and her old editor said, “You know, your mother was the best reporter we had.” The compliment made her wonder where she would be if she hadn’t quit. Another professor told me she turned down her husband’s first marriage proposal because she was “obsessed” with her job and felt pressure to prove herself to her male colleagues. She went on to become one of the first female managing editors of a major metropolitan daily paper. She married her husband 10 years after his first proposal, and they never had children. The third professor, who was about 15 or 20 years younger than the other two professors, worked as a broadcast news reporter for almost 10 years before quitting to teach journalism so she could spend more time with her kids.
I pursued this project because I wanted to understand how we should be talking about gender equality in the home. I wondered whether university classrooms should be a forum for discussion about the tension between personal and professional goals. I concluded that they should be. “Perhaps then it won’t be considered a ‘woman’s issue,’ but a part of life accounted for within the field of work,” I wrote.
Re-reading my paper now, I’m surprised by how I was thinking about the world of work at 19 years old. Today, as a working mother who most definitely does not “have it all,” I have had a number of conversations with friends and colleagues about home gender dynamics and how they affect their work. More than one friend has complained that while both spouses work, the woman is primarily responsible for organizing play dates, summer camps, and the school calendar. Last year, I was in the middle of a work call when I could hear my colleague’s child start wailing. Then her husband rushed in, and a tense conversation ensued. Having been in similar situations, I could imagine the words exchanged: Why aren’t you looking after the kid while I’m working?!? Afterward, she sent me a wry email: “Women's leadership begins at home, and I have none.”
What happens at home matters, and not just because it affects our personal relationships. It also affects how we contribute at work, and our opinions about gender roles shape office culture, policies, expectations, and biases.
In my research this year, I learned that not only is there a glass ceiling, there’s a “maternal wall.” Amy Nelson, an entrepreneur with three kids, wrote about this in a recent column for the Washington Post. She cited research revealing that while women are 15 percent less likely to be promoted than men, mothers are half as likely to advance than women without children. (The same research found that women with kids are 79 percent less likely to be hired in the first place.) Nelson ended up quitting her job as a corporate litigator to start her own company because she was tired of having to defend her ability to work and be a mom.
These norms affect men, too. Less than 20 percent of American workplaces offer paid paternity leave, and one study found that more than a third of men said they would not take leave due to concerns about how it would affect them at work. When I had kids and still worked full time, I arranged a flexible schedule so that I could work at home two days per week. Adam, meanwhile, had a hard time convincing his employer that international travel and after-work drinks were more difficult for him as a dad. Social institutions and norms also prevent dads from participating in ways they want to. Kevin Shafer, a sociology professor at Brigham Young University wrote an article in the Conversation about how programs like childbirth classes rarely address the role of the father beyond suggesting that they support the mother.
In reflecting on the paper I wrote back in 1995, my professor, Dick Schwarzlose, wrote a long and thoughtful missive about his own decision to take a step back from work and spend more time with his young family. As a result, he wrote, it took him 25 years to complete his two-volume history of wire services. While he said he never regretted his “reduction in production,” he said many of his male friends and colleagues regretted spending so much time at work: “I don’t know how many times (even from professors) I’ve heard men in their older years regret not having spent more time with their kids and wives. Often too little, too late.”
Last year, the work-and-home gender dynamic went viral when the BBC was conducting a live interview on Korean politics with a professor who was working from home. In the middle of the interview, the professor’s two kids busted through the door, followed a few seconds later by his frantic wife, who quickly corralled the kids. Let’s take a moment to appreciate this woman’s feat: She ran into the room, crouching low to avoid the camera lens, and grabbed the toddler by the arm, while dragging the baby backward in his walker. I’m pretty sure she didn’t have three arms, but she somehow managed to open the door behind her without releasing either kid. Then she ushered out both kids and shut the door behind them. Since this is on video, I clocked her: She did this all in 12 seconds.
The BBC subsequently brought the whole family back for an interview about the clip. But rather than using the time to talk about work-life balance and gender norms in the modern home, the interviewer asked about the series of events as if it were an internet meme: “When you watched it back, could you appreciate just sort of what a perfect piece of physical comedy it was?” he asked the professor. “And, of course, [your wife] had a major role in making it so funny, flying about the room.” Yeah, buddy, ha-ha, it’s just so funny trying to balance work, life, and the politics of Korea.
He proceeded to wonder how it happened, pointedly asking the wife, “What were you doing at the time?” (What could possibly have been more important than barricading your kids from your important husband’s important BBC interview?) She replied: “I was recording his interview.” Turns out the husband forgot to lock the office door. I stopped watching after the interviewer referred to the couple’s daughter, who entered the room first, as “an intruder.”
BBC missed opportunity aside, it’s time we start talking more about how gender dynamics at home affect gender equality at work. We need to have these conversations at home, at school, at work, and maybe even on live television.