At the beginning of March 2020, a few weeks before most knowledge workers packed up their desks and began working from home, my husband and I sat down to determine which one of us would quit our jobs.
We were employed by the same company, but his office was located three hours from our home. He left every Monday morning at 4 a.m. and returned Thursday at 8 p.m. That meant I shouldered the lioness’s share of domestic duties, taking care of our three children on top of a full-time career and a two-hour daily commute of my own. It was unsustainable.
We never had to make that painful decision, of course, because Covid changed everything. Freed from his grueling commute, my husband was able to give the kids a bath and read to them at bedtime. During the day, he ran errands and cleaned the house. I had time to focus on the platform I had built for caregivers, Mother Honestly, and to turn it into a growing business.
I have heard from many moms that their partners are now participating more in meal prep, grocery shopping, laundry, dish washing, after-school activities, and school pick-up. Still, I worried that a pandemic that had pushed millions of moms out of the workforce would erase a generation of progress for women.
When Mother Honestly partnered with Care.com this fall to survey 1,000 employee caregivers and 500 c-suite level executives or HR and senior level managers for our Modern Workplace Report, I was prepared for a sobering dose of reality regarding women’s progress. Instead, the results suggested a surprising silver lining to a pandemic that’s taken such a profound emotional toll on moms: The widespread adoption of remote work and other family-friendly policies appear to have blunted much of the feared fallout for women. Out of the 1,000 employees surveyed, an identical percent of men and women (77%) agreed that remote work has created a more even playing field for career advancement across gender lines.
One big reason why: Men are doing more at home.
In the last few decades, more women have boldly marched into boardrooms and corner offices, but even as many of us became breadwinners for our families, one thing has never changed: Women in heterosexual partnerships still perform more household chores and childcare. That burden is a big reason why mothers scale back their careers.
That may be shifting, thanks in part to the rise of remote work and other flexible work policies. In our survey, nearly half of male caregivers with a child under the age of 15 agreed with the statement, “I personally spend more time on childcare when working remotely, which saves my spouse or partner some time.” Male caregivers who shifted from in-office to remote or hybrid work also said they now spend more time on household work than before, with 32% doing more cleaning and 34% doing more cooking.
The widespread shift to remote work has made household labor visible like never before, and not only because kids, aging parents, and other dependents regularly popped up in Zoom calls. I’ve heard from many male CEOs who confessed they never understood, until now, how much work their stay-at-home wives performed during the day. It’s easy to ignore a sink full of dishes or a crying toddler when you’re ensconced in an office miles away—not so much when they’re right next to your laptop.
Research has shown that most dads want to spend more time with their kids, but before the pandemic, many were afraid they would suffer career consequences for leaving the office early or working from home. The fear is justified. Historically, people who take advantage of parent-friendly policies have been viewed as less competent and committed. While I’m sure that bias hasn’t entirely receded, it has certainly been reduced. And, crucially, moms aren’t the only ones suffering the consequences, now that dads are demanding more flexibility, too.
This shift is to everyone’s benefit, explains Kate Mangino, the author of Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equity at Home. “In different-sex couples, the default for decades has been ‘mom will do it.’ This puts extraordinary pressure on women, but it is also very limiting to men,” she says. “Men who are present fathers and equal partners are motivated to spend time at home because that leads to stronger emotional relationships, which, frankly, makes them happier.”
In a country where Congress stubbornly refuses to pass measures to make parents’ lives easier (ahem, paid family leave and subsidized child care), employers will continue to play an outsized role in crafting policies that keep this crucial demographic in the workforce. A Harvard researcher found that college graduates with babies and toddlers actually became more likely to work for pay than they were before the pandemic, possibly because flexible workplaces have allowed dads to do more child care. And economists have suggested that remote work contributed to a baby boom in 2021, a reversal of a years-long decline in the birth rate.
Of course, women still tackle an outsized share of household tasks, and we have a long way to go before we reach an equitable division. But remote work has lived up to its hype as a vehicle for accelerating women’s progress. Now it’s up to more men and managers to get in the car.