The dark side of success – what women have to lose to win

Chloe Chambraud, Business in the Community's Gender Equality Director explains three ways employers can contribute to create better balance for everyone.

I spent my whole childhood eating frozen dishes. My mum didn’t have time to cook. She was coming home exhausted from her 12-hour shifts as an emergency nurse. She would shelve some already-made dish in the oven that would end up being carbonised – but still eatable – before checking our homework, cleaning up the flat, dealing with the bills, etc.

Like my mum, when women go home, work does not stop. It is a different kind of work – always unpaid, often repetitive and rarely rewarding.

Last year, French cartoonist Emma, published a brilliant comic about the ‘mental load’1. The mental load is the invisible burden that weighs on women’s shoulders. The mental load is about having to remember to add the cotton buds to the shopping list, that the baby grew another 3 cm and can’t fit into his trousers anymore, and that your partner doesn’t have clean shirt left.
 
In the UK, women aged 26 to 35 do the most unpaid work, at 34 hours a week2 - that’s 40% more than their male partners. They are also nearly twice as likely to experience anxiety as men3. Is it a coincidence? I don’t think so. Research shows that those who feel time-poor experience lower levels of happiness, lower productivity and are more likely to get divorced4.

This unequal system also has a huge impact on business as 56% of the gender pay gap can be explained by the unequal sharing of caring responsibilities5. This is because women have to take career breaks or work part-time because it is just too arduous (or expensive) to combine being a full-time worker with being a full-time mother.

So when we ‘celebrate’ International Women’s Day this year and the achievements of women across the world, we should not forget that this often came at a cost. For women who have to give up their career, for their partners who miss out on spending time with their loved ones and for employers who see their pay gap increase over time.

If we want to promote gender equality in UK workplaces, we have to be honest. We simply can’t expect women to be Chief Executive Officers at work and Chief Home Officers. So, what can employers do to #balanceforbetter?

1. Get rid of the long working hours culture

In the last 20 years, the average working day in the UK has increased to almost nine core hours, the longest average working week in Europe6. Overwork has become the norm in our companies, not only is it expected (and unpaid!), but it is also admired and taken into consideration in promotion conversations. 

Fathers are more likely to work long hours than non-fathers, but it is the other way around for mothers. This culture that encourages presenteeism results in fathers being seen as more committed (but also promoted) whilst mothers are seen as less committed and often lose out on promotions because they can’t put the hours in. Remember, the laundry still has to be done. 

2. Give parents a real choice and equal opportunities

They are both parents after all. Why should women get 52 weeks of parental leave and men only two? This is unfair and biased. It should be up to every couple to decide how they want to split up the care of their child, like in Sweden where each parent gets 90 days that are reserved exclusively for him or her8. When parents have to choose between giving up caring or their career, it’s not a choice, it’s a sacrifice. 

When we asked gay dads how they were balancing care between them  for our Equal Lives research, we were blown away by the responses. Indeed, they were much more likely than straight couples to choose their own patterns of care. They didn’t inherit gender stereotypes and were able to make up their own rules. By introducing equal packages of leave (or enhanced shared parental leave that match maternity pay), you are giving parents from all genders a real choice.

3. Enable dads to be at home, mothers to be at work and our children will be happier

On the one hand, children with an involved father are more likely to be emotionally secure, confident to explore their surroundings, and, as they grow older, to have better social connections with peers. On the other hand, women with working mothers perform better in the workplace, and earn more and possessing more powerful positions than their peers with stay-at-home mothers. I would never have got to where I am today if it wasn’t for my mother and I am so grateful to her for being such a great role model. But this came at a cost, and  I will keep fighting for more inclusive workplaces until we can truly bring our whole selves to work, not lose our whole selves to work.

 

References
 
2. BBC News (2016) Women still do more household chores than men, ONS finds. Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-37941191
3. BBC News (2016) Women 'nearly twice as likely to have anxiety' as men. Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-36444404
4. Willans, Ashley (2019) Time for Happiness Harvard Business Review. Available at (£) https://hbr.org/cover-story/2019/01/time-for-happiness
5. Government Equalities Office (2018) The gender pay gap in the UK: evidence from the UKHLS. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-gender-pay-gap-in-the-uk-...
6. Armstrong, Christine (2018), The Mother of All Jobs, 2018, Page ix, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mother-All-Jobs-Children-Career/dp/1472956222
7. Fleming, Peter (2018) Do you work more than 39 hours a week? Your job could be killing you. The Guardian. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jan/15/is-28-hours-ideal-w...
8. Swedish institute (2019) 10 things that make Sweden family-friendly. Available at https://sweden.se/society/10-things-that-make-sweden-family-friendly/
9. Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children's Bureau (2006)The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/usermanuals/fatherhood/
10. Harvard Business School (2015) Press Release - Having a Working Mother Is Good For You. Available at https://www.hbs.edu/news/releases/Pages/having-working-mother.aspx