COVID-19 has transformed home life — turning kitchen tables into home offices and classrooms and putting a spotlight on the countless household tasks typically performed by women. Brigid Schulte says the pandemic has laid bare the "grotesque inequality" that exists within many families.
"There's been a lot of invisible labor that women have done, that people, particularly men — even in the same household — haven't been aware of or haven't paid attention to," she says.
Now that more couples are working from home, Schulte says it's impossible to ignore "the fact that women bear so much more of the burden of child care and housework."
Schulte is the director of the Better Life Lab, a work-life, gender equity and social policy program at the New America think tank, and the author of the 2014 book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. She says our culture operates according to an outdated "breadwinner/homemaker" model.
"We've got this grand mythology that that's really what a family should be," she says. "We still think that one person should go out to work and be responsible for all of the work and earning and supporting the family. ... And there should be ... somebody always available at home to do the care and carework."
But Schulte says that families aren't monolithic and shouldn't be treated as such. She says the pandemic has created an opportunity to start a dialogue about the distribution of household tasks.
"You really need to create the space to have the conversations about who does what and what really is fair and how to share it," she says. "I think it's very difficult for couples to continue [on] autopilot like they might have before."
On developing a more equitable division of labor within her own household
For my husband and I, we came to a really tough spot when our children were smaller, and when I was writing Overwhelmed and looking at gender equality and thinking, "Wait a minute. Here I am — we made these great promises to be equal partners when we were first married. How is it that I felt like I was doing virtually everything — taking the kids to the pediatrician and the dentist and cooking and cleaning and organizing everything." And so we actually did a lot of work right around the time of the book, and I say that because we came to a point where I was ready to walk away. I was so angry. ...
What we started doing is thinking about, OK, what is the bucket of work that needs to get done? What are the standards we can both agree on? And how do we make it into a system so that I don't have to keep nagging? (Which I didn't want to do, and he didn't want to feel henpecked.) ...
And so it was sort of through trial and error. We've tried little experiments. We would talk about it. We had to create a space that was more of a neutral zone where I wasn't always accusing him and feeling angry, and he wasn't always feeling like I didn't appreciate what he did do, because men do do work. They tend to do kind of the bigger one-offs. They'll take the car to get it inspected, whereas the women — this is what all the time-diary data shows — they do a lot of the day-to-day, time-intense tasks which feel very heavy, really kind of pollute your mind. [My husband] needed to see that I was doing a lot of that work, and we started to share more fairly.
On how to start a conversation with your partner about gender equity in the household
If you are walking around like I was, just with this kind of low-level radioactive anger all the time, it really saps your own energy and quality of life. And so we actually started a project at the Better Life Lab to try to help people kind of go through the process that a lot of psychologists and counselors will say is the best thing to do — and that is first, take a breath, remember why you are together, what it is that brought you together, and then really work together to come up with a vision.
What is it that you really want your family and your time together to be like? Start with what you want and then work backward from there about how you make that happen. And then once you have that bucket of work ... then come up with the systems to make that happen. ...
So think about who usually does a typical task. Can you do a "Freaky Friday" and change it up? And so then at the end of the day or end of the week, whatever you've decided to switch up, how did that feel? And get kids involved, because the research shows that when kids also are involved and have a role and some chores, as difficult as it might be and as much as they might grouse, it really helps give them a sense of efficacy that they're part of this team, that you're this unit and you're building resilience together.
On why she advises against picking up the slack on housework that a partner does sloppily
Through the years, we would have these agreements — you do this and I do this — and then typically [my husband] would always just slack off and wouldn't do it, and then I would always pick it up. And then that would just increase my sense of anger, because it would feel so unfair. And that's actually a phenomenon. It's called "learned helplessness." ...
It's so important to come back then and not rescue, not reinforce that learned helplessness. But again, kind of put it into this neutral zone: Think of your family as your own entrepreneurial business. How do you want it to run? Would you want your business partner to take up the entire load? That's not a really great way to run a partnership. And so to bring that sense of awareness of what's fair, to be able to talk about it, but then — for women, particularly — not to rescue. Not to harp. Not to say, well, "I would have done it this way." If you want to do that, if you want to hold to certain standards that you have to agree to them, because if you want to have higher standards, then then by all means, go ahead and do it. But then you're going to have to recognize that you were part of then reinforcing what's unfair about it.
On how women often assume the responsibility for "invisible work," such as maintaining schedules and maintaining family ties
There's a whole body of research around what's called "the mental load." It's something that women also disproportionately bear. ... It's all of the stuff that you have to keep in your mind. It's just an explosion of details and logistics and planning and organizing and making appointments and remembering the appointments and getting people to the appointments, remembering birthdays, doing the "kinwork" ... keeping the ties, the family and bonds of friends, keeping those strong. ...
And it's not like laundry that you can see when it's done. You only know when people haven't done it, if it falls apart or where somebody has an emotional meltdown. ... Part of the mental load is also this emotional labor, taking everybody's emotional temperature, making sure everybody is feeling heard and getting their needs met. It can be absolutely exhausting. And when people don't see it and don't recognize it and don't value it, it can be very demoralizing.
On how research shows that same-sex couples have a more equitable distribution of labor
Same-sex couples ... need to make the same decisions about how to divide the labor. They need to make the same decisions as other couples about how to combine work and family, and there's far less stress, tension, hostility. And the main reason why is because they cannot make assumptions based on gender, so they have to communicate. And that is the most powerful lesson, I think, that [heterosexual] couples can take right now and take real solace, communicate with each other, throw out the assumptions [about] what your parents did, what your boss expects. What is it that you want? And how [do you want] to divide the labor up in a way that works for you and your family? That's a wonderful lesson to learn from same-sex couples right now.
On how the pandemic has forced companies to move to working from home — which previously carried a stigma that hurt working women
All of a sudden, all these [companies] that said we couldn't possibly work remotely, you couldn't possibly have a flexible schedule — now, that's the new reality. And they're finding that they're not only able to do it, but that people actually are working quite well — even in crazy pandemic circumstances where they're working, and caring for kids, and worrying about how to get to the grocery store, and find masks and disinfectant, and doing home schooling. ...
So I think that when/if we go back to normal, I don't think we can return to what it was — because work wasn't working for anyone before. And so this is an opportunity to see: How can we reshape work? And, in doing that, how will that impact families and gender equality?
When remote work or flexible work first came into vogue sort of in the 1990s, it was largely driven by technology, because finally you had the technology where you could do that. But it also came up around the time when it was more women were in the workplace. It was sort of seen as an accommodation for working mothers who just couldn't hack it, couldn't meet those ideal worker norms, couldn't stay late, so they needed this accommodation. So it was always stigmatized as something that a "lesser worker," a less dedicated worker, would need.
As someone who worked flexibly and sort of hid it for years, I can tell you what an incredibly wrongheaded notion that is. When you have that sense of control over your schedule so that you're able to manage your caregiving, your work and your life responsibilities as well, you can be incredibly efficient and productive, and I think the pandemic is finally showing that. And what I'm hoping is that the stigma that it's associated with women, or "lesser workers," can be removed. And let's just think about what is the work that needs to be done and open up the notion that it can be done anywhere and really by anyone. And that includes people who have caregiving responsibilities, like mothers.
On using this time as an opportunity to rethink workplaces and home life
Our policies need to be able to support the families that we have today — and not breadwinner/homemaker families, which really is not the way families are formed anymore. ... We really need to think about our workplace cultures: How do we reimagine them so that we're not just rewarding the ideal worker who can work all the time and act as if they don't have caregiving responsibilities? How can we open up that sense of a whole human being, an authentic human being with work and life? How can we create work systems that provide opportunity for meaningful work — and yet don't eat you alive, don't burn you out? How can we create work that is also decent and dignified? ... How can we begin to create systems that don't foster this really grotesque inequality, whether it's economic inequality or gender inequality? ...
It's interesting: We just did a big study looking at men and care, and what we found that was so surprising is that men actually anticipate needing to take time off of work to give care at the same level that women do. They just don't, because our policies and our workplace cultures don't support that. So that's what I want to see coming out of this pandemic. How do we create the policies, the workplace cultures and our cultural attitudes that enable so much more equality?
Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.