The challenge of changing gender norms

Here at Changing Relations, we’ve spent a lot of the past 3 months of the Covid19 pandemic talking about domestic abuse. It was clear from the get-go that the lockdown measures would be like holding a magnifying glass over an abusive relationship.

Less apparent from the start of this unfamiliar situation, in which, suddenly, many households found themselves working and “home-schooling,” was how that magnifying glass would also apply to the way gender roles play out in homes across the nation.

But here we are, “regressing back to the 1950s for many women” as:

  • the proportion of mothers responsible for 90 to 100% of childcare increased from 27% to 45% during lockdown;
  • 72% of mothers described themselves as the “default” parent for all or most of the time during lockdown;
  • with 67% of women with work commitments describing themselves as such;
  • and 70% of women being completely or mostly responsible for home schooling;

In this piece, we’ll consider the professional consequences of this home-work-life snapshot. We posit that a joined-up approach is needed if we are to achieve real progress towards gender equality in society.

Really this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

For years, feminists have been writing about women:

  • carrying more of the emotional load of a family;
  • undertaking the double burden of caring for children and elderly relatives;
  • doing more of the unpaid household labour such as cleaning.

But what the lockdown has done – as with domestic abuse – is exaggerate the usual conditions a family faces. It has made the imbalance bubbling beneath the surface much more obvious.

As an education and training company passionately committed to breaking down gender barriers, we are concerned to understand how change actually happens. The social-ecological model below points to the different levels that operate in society. It gives a clue as to why it is so difficult to achieve change.

Social-ecological model of behaviour change

We might assume we need to focus on the top level of government and systems, with a policy such as the gender pay gap reporting requirement (and it’s not without relevance that this “has been suspended by the government during the coronavirus outbreak”). For sure, this top down approach has the potential to name and shame a large company into looking internally at how gender inequality plays out at their own institutional level in terms of pay.

Top down action isn’t enough

But what the lockdown magnifying glass has shown us is that, unless we are proactively challenging gender inequality at all of the levels, from government right down to the individual / family context, it is all too easy for any progress we’ve made to be rolled back when crisis hits. Hence the situation we find ourselves in now, of women being disproportionately responsible for home-schooling during lockdown, even where both parents are working from home.

Why is this?

Is it possible that on some unspoken level, the male partner’s work is seen as more important? Do we still assume childcare to be predominantly the woman’s role? Does the male partner’s work pay more and/or is more of a full time role?

Whatever the case, the lockdown context presents us with an opportunity to see how action on the different levels of society needs to be woven together if we are serious about progress towards gender equality.

In “normal” times, what British boss would want to interfere in the gender balance of an employee’s home life? We have a strong tendency to separate the public and the private sphere. It is why making progress in the fight against domestic abuse has been such a slog! The conviction that “it’s a private matter;” “it’s not my business” was strong!

Joined-up thinking

But here we have a moment where families have been required to home-school their children and maintain their jobs (excepting those where one partner has been furloughed of course). And suddenly, this makes that private gender balance highly relevant to the institutional level of the company. How can women maintain productivity levels when they’re multi-tasking with home-schooling so much more than their male counterparts? How will bosses view the promotional prospects of their male and female employees in the face of this productivity gap? What will this mean for their company gender pay gap going forward (when the government re-instates the reporting requirement!)?

Government. Policy. Institution. Interpersonal. Individual.

Different levels. All inter-related.

If we’re going to achieve gender equality, we need action at all of these levels to be joined up.

It is absolutely right for Dame Helena Morrissey – and a host of prominent figures from sport, to fashion and parliament – to call upon the government to take action in the face of the gender inequality exposed and exaggerated by the pandemic.

But it’s also worth asking, what does this mean for a company?

Is this a time to ask questions about company culture? Is it time to consider how stereotypical gender norms and assumptions about the roles men and women should play – in the workplace and the home – might be unconsciously reinforced through our words, jokes, responses, who we promote, what we pay people? To what extent does the level of productivity expected by high-performing companies exert pressure on households to revert to stereotypical gender roles, increasing the challenge for women to break even?

The impact of lockdown has been dramatic in so many ways. Do we dare take this moment to be bold in responding to what it reveals about where we still are with gender inequality as a society?

What about our own house?

A final thought takes us back to the individual and interpersonal level of the private family home. To make change, we need support, encouragement – and perhaps also the brow-beating of policies such as the gender pay gap reporting requirement – from the institutional and governmental level. We also need to look to what is happening at home. It’s tempting to rationalise the gender construct of our individual homes with our own specific circumstances. But when we see the statistics tell a generalised story, perhaps we need to dig a bit deeper as to whether it is 100% justified for the distribution of roles in the home to follow such 1950s lines!

If we don’t see gender inequality as our responsibility to proactively address, we will not eradicate it.