Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the gender balance at home and at work?

Dr Jasmine Kelland is programme leader for both the masters and bachelors programmes in human resource management at Plymouth Business School. She previously worked as an HR Manager in a number of organisations in both the public and private sectors. Her research explores the gender role stereotyping of parents in the workplace, with a particular focus on fathers.

She has had numerous papers published, including by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee, regarding parents in the workplace. She has presented her research at professional and academic conferences and to the Fatherhood All Party Parliamentary Group at Portcullis House. She has also advised large companies with a view to raising awareness of the challenges facing fathers in the workplace.

To find out more about Dr Kelland's work or to explore ways in which her work could benefit your organisation or contribute to policy development, please contact her via email.

 

Most recently, I have been exploring the impact of the COVID-19 lockdowns on fathers, while parenting and gender roles within the home environment have been under the microscope. While significant progress has been made towards understanding and acknowledging that some employees need more flexible work arrangements, I argue that more can be done and we should build on the momentum gained to shape future policy development and regulation.

Fatherhood forfeit

Most organisations have policies in place to support employees with managing their work and home life (such as flexible working and part-time working). Usually underpinned by legislation, these are (in theory) aimed at all staff. In practice however, such policies are primarily associated with mothers, with children considered to be a woman’s issue and flexible working arrangements that facilitate a parent’s active involvement in caring are often not extended to fathers so readily.

Mothers have been found to be three times more likely to ask for flexibility in working arrangements than fathers and to have more success securing them.

Often, workplace support for caregiving behaviour can be constructed as a potential favour, a maternal privilege that working mothers receive. My research explores this area and I have found that when fathers choose to take a significant role in the caregiving of their children they face a number of challenges. I have identified these as ‘fatherhood forfeits’.

I discovered that when parents of both genders applied for a part-time role, the father was judged as being less competent, having lower workplace commitment and hire-ability than the mother. Consequently, my research found that caregiving fathers were less likely to obtain a part-time role than a mother, incurring a ‘fatherhood forfeit’. In addition, fathers were found to face additional forfeits of being viewed with suspicion, mocked and told they were idle and left struggling to establish friendships in their quest to take an active role in the caregiving of their children.


Challenges of ‘daddy daycare’

I was particularly surprised by the deep-rooted existence and expression of negative attitudes to male caregivers. There is still a lot of judgement of men who choose to care for their children; they encounter negativity in the form of micro-aggressions in work situations or receive openly offensive comments or jokes about their role at family gatherings. This demonstrates that, as a society, we need to increase awareness of the impact of such thoughtless and negative comments and how they can reinforce existing prejudices.

Parenting during the pandemic

I have recently been involved in a project with colleagues at another University exploring both mothers’ and fathers’ parental experiences in the UK during the pandemic and whether there has been a shift in these experiences over this time. The research involved a qualitative survey of parents in the first March 2020 lockdown, follow-up interviews with parents, a diary study and a follow-up qualitative survey in the third lockdown in February 2021.

Initial findings suggest that traditional gender stereotypes appear to be gradually eroding during this period. Both parents reported enjoying more time with their children; mothers and fathers collectively described finding a better work-life balance.

With both parents at home, some have witnessed elements of caregiving that had previously been hidden from view, for example, while they were in the office or commuting. This has resulted in them having a greater appreciation of the amount of work involved in caregiving.

By the third lockdown, and with the resumption in homeschooling, some fathers wanted to be more involved in their children’s learning as they had seen how burdensome it was for their partners. There are instances of both parents working together to implement new joint strategies for managing parenting, homeschooling and other pressures resulting from lockdown.

Impact of the pandemic on gender roles

While some researchers have argued that lockdowns in the pandemic have solidified traditional gender roles, I am less convinced.

This project indicates that the pandemic has blurred the borders between the private (home) and public (work) space with paid and unpaid work co-existing in the same physical space over the past year, as in a bygone age. Where mothers may have previously had wider involvement in their children’s education, doing the school pick-ups and drop-offs and supervising homework, these boundaries have been eroded.

Parents are re-evaluating their work life balance as a consequence of their experience during the pandemic, realising that a change to work routines supports wider involvement in family life.

HR practitioners will play a crucial role in the future

The argument for flexible working has gathered significant momentum over the past year. I think it is important that this momentum is maintained; it is clear that remote working and virtual meetings will continue in some form.

In the post-covid workplace, employers will undoubtedly need to explore modifications to existing working arrangements and will have to formalise the complex network of favours and negotiation that often guides decision making in this area. HR teams will need to review organisational work practices to ensure that those who utilise flexible working will not face forfeits and penalties as a consequence.

For these changes to be implemented effectively, workplace discrimination faced by staff who wish to work more flexibly will need to be tackled. It will also be necessary to establish a clear framework to address the potential risks to employees’ mental health when boundaries between work and home are increasingly blurred.

Actions employers can take

Organisations can take action to make their workplaces more gender neutral to increase engagement with flexible working policies from both mothers and fathers.

There needs to be an acknowledgement that both parents may wish to take an active role in the caregiving of their children. This may include offering wider training that explores the potential biases enacted towards fathers, both conscious and unconscious. Educating managers and employees on this matter could both increase awareness of the importance of gender neutrality and highlight the potential risks of gender bias.

Naturally, organisational culture clearly needs to change too; active role modelling with examples of fathers being able and supported to work (successfully) part time, or flexible hours to juggle parenting responsibilities will help.

There is definitely a need for more research on this topic to inform policy development. This should help to ensure that there is a more balanced view to challenge these inbuilt societal prejudices. Of course, progress has been made but increasing the acceptability of, and providing more support for fathers in caregiving roles, is the key to further equality in the workplace for both mothers and fathers.

I think there is scope for a change to the Equality Act to make ‘Parental Status’ a protected characteristic and there should be stronger regulation regarding flexible working.


Conclusion

In the post-covid workplace, offering flexibility will be central to employee retention.

Employees who are unable to reconcile their new discoveries regarding balancing work and home life with the reality of their working arrangements will actively seek an employer who offers this. Overall, I think this highlights the importance of people being encouraged to ‘be themselves’ at work and to be honest about the challenges they face.

The circumstances resulting from the pandemic lockdowns have fostered a sense that employees have more permission to share their challenges and to ask for more flexible arrangements.

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