I grew up believing that women provide for their families while men raise their children. That belief transformed my career and my household.
When I was born, my parents faced the same harrowing childcare costs that we face today. They made the decision that my mom would work full-time while my dad would take care of us and start his own business on the side. When my parents needed backup childcare, they took us to our grandparents’ house, where my grandfather looked after us while my grandmother worked.
As a child, your family is your whole world. I didn’t notice that my father and grandfather were often the only men at the playground; I noticed that Dad had an endless ability to create ridiculous games and Grandpa did the best theatrical monster voices. I didn’t realize that people said my mother shouldn’t work; I was proud that she was so ethical in her pottery sales job that some clients trusted her to put together their orders for them (and delighted that her clients gave out candy on Bring Your Kids to Work Day). Because of my parents, I was convinced that I would be the breadwinner of my future household because I was a woman.
It has been years since I realized just how unusual my childhood was, but every day still feels like Opposite Day.
I grew out of the belief that women were better than men at work. However, I believed I would start my own household in a world where men and women are equal partners at work and at home.
Instead, we all find ourselves in a world where women still do twice as much household work as men, on average. A recent study even showed that women who earn more than their partners do more housework.
The most important lesson my childhood taught me is that gender equality begins at home. Equal partners (people in a relationship who share childcare and other household tasks fairly) tend to be more successful at work than partners who do the bulk of the household labor. Talking about household equity is an essential component of promoting gender equality at work.
Household equity affects everyone. If you are in a relationship and you feel like you and your partner are not equal partners, I want you to know that the way you are feeling now is not permanent. My family taught me how to create a more equitable environment in my household, and I hope these ideas can support you too.
Seeing my mother work made me believe that women can accomplish anything.
My mother told me that she believed that the only future open to her was becoming a stay-at-home mom because none of the mothers who lived in her neighborhood worked when she was growing up. Then, she developed an interest in plants and gardening and pursued it. She became one of three women in a class of over 120 people to graduate with a degree in plant science.
My sister grew up knowing that she could be an economist; I was convinced I could be a lawyer, chemist, doctor, astronaut, or documentary filmmaker (depending on the week). In one generation, my mother changed what my sister and I thought we could accomplish and who we thought we could be. Now, my sister is a federal economist and equity researcher, and I lead growth for a startup that helps families distribute household work more fairly.
Equal partners model equity for their children. Parents who share household tasks fairly change what their daughters believe they can accomplish. They also give their sons a more egalitarian perspective of their role in their future household.
Men aren’t better at work. Women aren’t better at childcare.
I was wrong when I assumed that men are better at childcare and women are better at work as a child. But society is also wrong when it claims the opposite. We need to challenge both societal limits and our own biases on what people of different genders can do.
My dad loves parenting so much that, when my younger sister left for college, he adopted a dog and texted us constant updates on everything he was doing to support her intellectual and social development. He tells anyone who will listen about everything he learned as a parent. He even won “first parent to start talking about grandchildren” after my husband and I got married.
I didn’t realize everything that my father had sacrificed for us until I was an adult. Members of our own extended family were cruel to him about “letting his wife be the breadwinner,” and he experienced the overwhelming stigma against stay-at-home dads returning to the workforce.
Dads are just as likely as moms to say that parenting is a central part of their identity. It is wonderful and okay when a woman chooses to be a stay-at-home mom; it needs to be wonderful and okay when someone of any other gender chooses to be a stay-at-home parent.
When I was first thinking about this piece, I was going to recommend that we encourage flexibility and other accommodations for all parents, no matter their gender. However, an HBS study suggests that those pieces of advice are flawed. The researchers found that individual accommodations like flexible work were more likely to derail the participants’ careers. They suggest that the problem is our broader culture of overwork, and the long hours which force employees of all genders to choose between their careers and their lives, whether they are parents or not.
As leaders, we need to recognize that everyone has responsibilities outside of work and that it’s possible to fulfill them and remain a high-performing employee. We should include parents of all genders when we challenge our societal views of stay-at-home parents and career breaks. Finally, we should accept the fundamental truth that parents of all genders want to be good parents for their kids.
We can also effect change in our own households. Household chores are still split along gender lines; women are more likely to cook and clean while men are more likely to maintain the car and yard. We can question our own distribution of work.
In my own household, my partner is (much) better at cooking than I am, while I’m a massive personal finance nerd. He makes dinner; I pay our taxes and manage our investments.
What are you truly best at? What chores do you and your partner enjoy most? Is that the work that you are currently doing in your household? If not, it might be time to talk with your partner.
Equity starts with a conversation.
My parents made the decision that my Dad would stay home together. Throughout my childhood, they frequently checked in with each other on who had the time to manage household tasks. In short, they worked as a team.
My husband and I are both committed to the idea of distributing tasks equally, but that’s easier said than done. There have been times that we have both been disappointed by something the other person wasn’t doing.
In those times, I’ve learned that resentment builds with lack of communication.
If you think you are doing more (or less!) work in your household than your partner, talk to them about how you feel, what change you would like to see, and why it’s important to you.
It is also okay, and completely normal, if you and your partner need additional support. Therapy and relationship counseling can help you work through the conversation if it gets tense or your partner isn’t understanding or respecting what you are saying.
Household equity is the foundation of gender equity. Equal partners are more successful in their careers, and they set an example for their children of who they can be and how they should be treated in relationships.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed at home, please know that things can get better. It starts with a single conversation with your partner, and a mutual commitment to pursuing an equal partnership. Creating a balance at work and home is an ongoing process.