Time for Care: The next revolution at work

The pandemic may reshape work forever—and that’s a good thing. Banner image: Shutterstock/Yuliia D

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted virtually everything about the way we work, live and care for one another. For those in power—primarily men—who haven’t been paying attention, it has brutally exposed just how broken the promises of gender equality have been. And just how necessary gender equity is to healthy families, communities and economies. But for all the pain, suffering and death, the pandemic has also brought us to a moment of reckoning: we now have an unprecedented opportunity to re-imagine gender equity at work and home. Not just for white-collar workers. But for all workers. And not just for women. But for men and people of all genders.

This is a crucial moment. Some surveys show that a majority of managers see pandemic workstyles as an “aberration” and are eager to snap back to the way things were. And why not? Many of these managers are white men with few if any caregiving responsibilities. Going back preserves structures that keep them in power.

Traditional workplace cultures are good at rewarding long hours and face time in the office. That work style—inadvertently or by design—was also really good at policing men and women into traditional gender roles. Women, in just about every country on earth, are still expected to be the unpaid primary caregivers of loved ones from birth through the end of life. Managers and leaders assume that they are less committed and dedicated to work. Men, on the other hand, are expected to be “ideal workers” putting work above all else, including time for family, for any caregiving and, in some countries, even their health and lives.

This time, tax of the work and care divide—rather than any difference in inherent talent or smarts—is a big part of why we still value men’s work more. It’s why there are still yawning gender pay gaps, why the glass ceiling is still so thick and why, across the globe, women, not men, are at risk of being set back a generation or more as the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on.

Read more on the Forum Network: Breaking with the Male Breadwinner: Female economic empowerment for gender equality by Eva Lindh, Regular Member, Swedish Parliament 

But other leaders recognise that change is inevitable. Survey after survey in country after country shows that a majority of workers want something different—more time for their lives, hybrid work styles that work for them and their families, decent and dignified work that pays the bills but doesn’t consume the soul. So badly do workers want things to change that 40%, across all socio-economic sectors, say they’d rather quit than go back to the way things were.

Managers and leaders who, pre-COVID, dismissed flexible schedules or work done anywhere but under their noses in the office or on the worksite now have proof positive that it’s not only possible, but that it can actually make workers happier and more productive. Five percent more productive, one study found, even under extraordinarily taxing circumstances like school and child care closures that forced workers to manage a job along with homeschooling and care responsibilities. And all the hourly and low-wage workers— overrepresented by women and people of colour—who, for so long have been underpaid and invisible, are now hailed as “essential”, worthy of “hero” pay.

How to change? For knowledge workers, rethinking work will require managers and leaders learning to reward jobs, tasks and outcomes, rather than outdated norms of simply being in the office all hours, or looking busy. It will require embracing flexibility, asynchronous work, clearer communication, and crafting and not just allowing, but supporting hybrid work plans that leaders themselves model, and that don’t privilege workers in the office over those working elsewhere. That’s a very real danger to gender equity. Make clear hybrid work is the new norm for everyone, not just women, mothers or those with caregiving responsibilities. Use data to track plum assignments, growth opportunities and promotions. Research has found that office-loving managers promote remote workers 50%  less often than office workers.

Read more on the Forum Network: What impact has COVID-19 had on women entrepreneurs and what can governments and policy makers do to put gender equality at the heart of global recovery? by Helen McEachern, CEO, The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women

For the low-wage and hourly retail and service workers, redesigning work means ensuring living wages, predictable and sufficient schedules workers have a say in creating, and, for all workers, access to benefits like health care, paid sick days and caregiving leave, affordable child and family care, training and retirement plans that are portable and follow them from job to job.

Reimagining work in all sectors and across the socio-economic spectrum could not only give people more time for their lives and improve the health and quality of life for everyone but also boost gender equity, ensuring that women have more equal opportunity at work and men could—finally—be equal partners at home.

That’s actually what men say they want. In a nationally representative survey of men in the United States we fielded at the Better Life Lab, the work-family justice and gender equity think tank programme I direct, more than 80% of men from all walks of life said caregiving is as valuable as breadwinning. And 90% said men should share it equally with women. But they don’t—a fact made painfully obvious during the pandemic as women shouldered the bulk of the homeschooling and childcare duties, and why millions of women around the world have been forced out of the workforce.

Yet, surprisingly, we found that men provide more care than they’re given credit for, and often at great cost. In fact, in one of the more surprising findings, our survey showed that men not only anticipate needing time off work to give care at the same rate that women do, but that men who care for adults or children with special needs perform many of the same intimate, hands-on tasks like bathing and dressing that women do. In another finding that upends stereotypes, we found that just as many men as women are forced to miss work (64%) reduce their work hours (42%) or leave the workforce entirely (50%) in order to give this intensive kind of care to disabled or elderly adults or children with special needs. Still, one in five caregiving men said they faced stigma as caregivers, solely because of their gender.

Read the recent OECD report Bringing Household Services Out of the Shadows: Formalising Non-Care Work in and Around the House which highlights the potential economic gains that could follow from easing the housework burden, the report also estimates the economic value of unpaid housework provided by men and women.

But in perhaps one of the most significant findings that should shape the post-pandemic work reset debate, men with caregiving responsibilities were four times more likely than non-caregiving men to experience work-family conflict. Two-thirds of caregiving men felt burned out trying to manage it all. And in all cases, the demands of work squeezing out time for family was the main source of that conflict.

In fact, the research is becoming clearer that work itself, not personal choice as the cultural narrative would have it, is what shapes men’s caregiving. In a new study comparing fathers in five advanced countries, researchers found that family policies and workplace norms—not men’s attitudes or beliefs—are what shape fathers’ behaviour. In the United States, where fathers aren’t supported by policy and ideal worker norms are more demanding, fathers spend far less physical time with their children, rely on harsher discipline and provide less emotional support than fathers in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and Sweden, all of which have more supportive social policies like paid paternity or parental leave and childcare investments. Those family-supportive policies, in turn, can shape workplace expectations and drive gender equity.

In the study, the one measure where United States fathers looked like fathers in countries with more time and supportive policies and work cultures was in warmth. “That tells me the desire to be an involved, loving father is there for fathers in the U.S., but they just don’t have the ability to act on it”, said Kevin Shafer, a sociologist who studies father involvement and an author of the study. “In the United States, one-third of men work 50 or more hours a week on average. That number in Canada is 5 percent. So work is a huge barrier for men to be involved at home”.

Lynn Roseberry, a gender, inclusion and diversity consultant in Denmark, has become convinced that workplaces are the next frontier for gender equality. She’s watched as, even with its family-supportive policies, Denmark has slipped from number 8 in World Economic Forum’s Gender Equality Index in 2006 to number 29 this year. “In Denmark, as in the other Nordic countries, you see women go into the public sector, rather than the private sector, because the hours are set and it’s seen as more family friendly”, she said. “But as you go up the ranks and in high-power environments like consulting, law and finance where you’re expected to put in a lot of hours, you don’t see a lot of women there”. Nor high-power men taking on major caregiving roles.

Yet when work cultures change, men’s behaviours change. Although the pandemic has rightly focused attention on women, particularly women of colour, and how far their gains at work have been set back, we’ve paid less attention to how the pandemic has been changing men. A handful of studies are finding that men have been doing more childcare and housework than before, and that if fathers had flexible work arrangements and didn’t have to go into an office or to a work site, they became far more involved in parenting. “One of the things the pandemic has taught men is that their families matter, and that they are actually capable caregivers”, Shafer said. “The question now is: are men going to reprioritise work and family life post-pandemic? I hope the answer to that question is going to be yes”.

So do I. But it will take all of us—lawmakers crafting the equitable family-supportive policies, business leaders designing and modeling equitable work cultures and seeing bottom line benefits, and all of us shifting our expectations to recognise that all humans are capable caregivers—to seize this moment of reckoning and, together, build an equitable post-pandemic future of work and care

Read the Policy Brief Women at the core of the fight against COVID-19 crisis to be informed of the OECD's recommendations on supporting women in care roles, paid and unpaid, during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Related Topics

Gender Equality   Future of Work  Tackling COVID-19 New Societal Contract

Brigid Schulte

Director, Better Life Lab

Brigid Schulte is an award-winning journalist, public speaker and author of the New York Times bestselling book on time pressure, gender and modern life, Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play when No One has the Time. She was a staff writer at The Washington Post and The Washington Post Magazine and was part of the team that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. She now serves as the director of the Better Life Lab, the work-family justice and gender equity program at New America, a nonpartisan think tank, Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Atlantic, Harvard Business Review, BBC, Financial Times, Vox, The Guardian, Washington Monthly, New York magazine and others. She hosts the popular Better Life Lab podcast on Slate.