Pandemic Makes Evident 'Grotesque' Gender Inequality In Household Work With more people staying home due to COVID-19, journalist Brigid Schulte says it's impossible to ignore "the fact that women bear so much more of the burden of child care and housework."

Pandemic Makes Evident 'Grotesque' Gender Inequality In Household Work

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. For many working couples during the pandemic, home has become the office. And for parents, home is also the school. It's created an opportunity for couples - or you might say it's forced some couples - to reconsider who does the housework, the shopping and who takes care of the children, who teaches the children when there's no school or day care. Talking about these issues can be difficult because they get to larger issues of equality within relationships. And it can bring up misunderstandings and resentments that have built up for years.

My guest, Brigid Schulte, has been investigating how the virus is disrupting absolutely everything about how we work and live, including what we expect from each other at home, from business and from the government. She's the founding director of the Better Life Lab, a work-life, gender equity and social policy program at the think tank New America. Her work there is a continuation of the issues she explored in her 2015 book "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time." She's a former Washington Post reporter who covered work-life issues, gender and poverty. She was part of the team that won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize. Schulte has been hosting a weekly webinar during the pandemic called Crisis Conversations.

Brigid Schulte, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now that so many couples who work are working from home, while also parenting and being the teachers and having to do the cooking and cleaning, what are some of the excuses that have prevented gender equality at home in the past that no longer hold up?

BRIGID SCHULTE: Well, I think excuses is really the wrong word. That makes it sound so trivial. And it makes it sound as if there's a choice, like somebody's working hard and is a victim and somebody else is choosing not to work hard and is somehow a bit of a jerk. I think that what this pandemic is showing is that the - really, I can't think of another word other than grotesque inequality at home, the fact that women are still doing twice the housework and child care. That's what all the time diary data shows. Even when women are working full time, even when women are the breadwinners, there is that imbalance, that unfairness in labor, you know, sharing child care and housework. It's so unequal. So you have to start thinking it's more than just excuses. It's more than just individual choices. The entire country can't just be made up of, you know, victims and jerks. So there's got to be something else going on.

And I think what this pandemic is showing is that our entire system, our entire structure's at work. And our social policy and what our cultural attitudes all gear us toward is this sense that we still support breadwinner homemaker families. We still think that one person should go out to work and be responsible for all of the work and earning, you know, supporting the family, providing for the family. And there should be - and I say should because this is not the case - there should be somebody always available at home to do the care and care work. So we've got this grand mythology that that's really what a family should be. There's no one monolithic family anymore. And yet, all of the supports are as if there were. And that creates an awful lot of tension.

GROSS: So what do you think are some of the new issues coming up for working couples who are both at home now about who does what at home? And it's probably similar for couples where neither of them is working and they're both at home.

SCHULTE: What the data will show is that women are still considered the primary parent, the lead parent, the, you know, responsible for the day-to-day tasks, responsible for thinking and planning and managing, so a lot of invisible labor. And one of the things that is happening when I've been interviewing people and interviewing couples is that men, because they are now home, it's really hard to ignore that. You can no longer stumble over the fact that women bear so much more of the burden of child care and housework. And I don't want to say burden, you know, because having a family is a wonderful thing. But it is a lot of work.

And I think that there's been a lot of invisible labor that women have done that people, particularly men even in the same household, haven't been aware of or haven't paid attention to. And it's really difficult to do that now. I was talking to one man who said, you know, I used to be able to walk by a basket of laundry and think - you know, just not even think about it. And, you know, when the laundry would appear in his drawers magically folded, again, never even thought about it. And now that he sees how much his wife does, now that they're kind of on top of each other, you know, trying to figure out how to work, trying to homeschool three children, trying to figure out what to do with them when you can't go anywhere and you can't arrange for play dates and they can't have friends over, that it's just an intensity. And so now he says, I can't walk by that laundry basket because I know that if I don't do it, she will. And I'm seeing how that's not fair.

And so you're beginning to see - I think it's very difficult for couples to continue on in autopilot like they might have before. And now couples really don't have that choice. If you're feeling this anger and resentment and unfairness and you're on top of each other all the time, you won't survive. You really need to create the space to have the conversations about who does what and what really is fair and how to share it.

GROSS: One of the things you've been doing is talking to the husbands of women who are frontline health workers. And many of those health workers are self-quarantining and living away from their families because they don't want to infect their families. So the male partners are forced to do the housework and raise the children. What are some of the things the men are telling you about what they've learned?

SCHULTE: So many frontline health workers are women. And we've been talking to some of them. Some of them have rented apartments or Airbnbs because they're worried about infecting their families. They're so exposed to the virus just every day when they go to work. I spoke with an ER doctor who basically is self-quarantining at home and very rarely comes out.

And one of the things that has emerged in talking with their spouses is the women simply are not there, so the men have to do everything. They have to do, not only the physical labor, you know, the cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping and getting the kids out of bed. And they have to do the home schooling and reading the bedtime stories and bath time. They also have to know, wow, what size are my kids clothes and going out to shop for them? You know, things that they had really never done before or remembering somebody's birthday and finding a birthday present and setting up a Zoom, you know, a Zoom call for the birthday. And so in talking with some of the men, it was really (laughter) - what's really funny is one there's one guy just said, I'm so exhausted (laughter), you know. And his wife was like, yeah, duh. That's what life is like, you know.

And so I think that we can't - you know, who knows? Is that something that will snap back and men will be just like, phew, I'm done? Will that snap back and won't have any impact? Or will it have some kind of lasting exposure therapy where there is a greater understanding and empathy of what women typically do? Will there be a greater sense of, wow, I really enjoyed this? Or this is something that gave me meaning, I'm going to want to continue to do that? You know, and then that begs some of the bigger questions. If men are already feeling some of that, why are they not able to do it now? And what would enable them to do it in the future?

GROSS: So what's changing at home in terms of who does what and when and how?

SCHULTE: Well, I have to say that for my husband and I, we came to a really tough spot when our children were smaller and when I was writing "Overwhelmed" and really looking at gender equality and really thinking, wait a minute. Here I am. You know, we made these great promises to be equal partners when we were first married. How is it that I'm - I felt like I was doing virtually everything, you know, taking the kids to the pediatrician and the dentist and, you know, cooking and cleaning and, you know, organizing everything. And so we actually did a lot of work right around the time of the book. And I say that because we came to a point where I was ready to walk away. I was so angry. It was Thanksgiving. And I was doing everything and thought, this is like (laughter) - this is like a cartoon. This is so bad. I feel like I'm in a ridiculous 1950s cartoon.

And so what we started doing is thinking about OK, well, what is the bucket of work that needs to get done? What are the standards we can both agree on? And how do we make it into a system so that I don't have to keep nagging, which I didn't want to do. And he didn't have to - he didn't want to feel henpecked. And so how do we create a system to make it more like a business? It's like, all right, this is our home. This is our family. How do we want it to run?

And so it was sort of through trial and error. We tried little experiments. We would talk about it. We kind of - we had to create a space that was more of a neutral zone, where I wasn't always accusing him and feeling angry and he wasn't always feeling like I didn't appreciate what he did do because men do do work. They tend to do kind of the bigger one-offs. They'll take the car in to get it inspected. Whereas the women - this is what all the time diary data show - they do a lot of the day-to-day, time-intense tasks, which feel very heavy, really kind of pollute your mind. You know, and so he needed to see that I was doing a lot of that work. And we started to share more fairly.

And so I have to say that when the pandemic hit, we already had a pretty good system. He does the grocery shopping and, you know, has the mask and, you know, takes the hand sanitizer. I do the laundry. He does the cooking. I do the dishes. I like to work in the yard, so I tend to do the yard work. He does car maintenance. So we actually - we're doing better. I don't feel like we have, you know, a lot of tension around this, but that's because it's a real work in progress. And we work on it all the time.

GROSS: So for couples who are having trouble talking about this issue because it gets to deeper issues in the relationship, do you have any advice about how to start the conversation and make it, like, about equity and not about, you know, anger, to, like, have a conversation that will be productive and not just lead to a fight?

SCHULTE: If you are walking around like I was, just with this kind of low-level, radioactive anger all the time, it really zaps your own energy and quality of life. And so we actually started a project at the Better Life Lab to try to help people kind of go through the process that a lot of psychologists and counsellors will say is the best thing to do. And that is, you know, first, take that breath. Remember why you are together, what it is that brought you together. And then really work together to come up with a vision. Well, what is it that you really want your family and your time together to be like? You know, start with what you want. And then work backward from there about how you make that happen.

And then once you have that bucket of work, all right, this is what needs to happen so that we can be the kind of family and have the kind of time that we want to, you know, not be angry and fight over the dishes, you know, then come up with the systems to make that happen. And sometimes what that's got to be are little experiments. You know, so that's what we've got, these sort of behavioral science inspired experiments that are like exposure therapy.

So think about who usually does a typical task. Can you do a "Freaky Friday" and, you know, change it up? And so then at the end of the day or end of the week, whatever you've decided to switch up, how did that feel? You know, and get kids involved because the research shows that when kids also are involved and have a role and some chores - You know, as difficult as it might be and as much as they might grouse - it really helps give them a sense of efficacy, that they're part of this team, that you're this unit and you're building resilience together.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brigid Schulte. She's the director of the Better Life Lab, a work-life, gender equity and social policy program at the think tank New America. We'll talk more about how the virus is changing home life and work life after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Brigid Schulte, the director of the Better Life Lab, a work-life, gender equity and social policy program at the think tank New America. She's a former Washington Post reporter who covered work-life issues, gender and poverty.

You know, a point that you bring up is that if you've asked your partner to share responsibilities with you and something's kind of, like, half done or sloppily done, don't fix it yourself. Like, don't take responsibility for what wasn't done. And you talk about even, like, when your husband was making the bed and left, like, pillows on the floor. Instead of you picking them up, you texted him a photo of the pillows on the floor (laughter). Talk a little bit more about that and why you think it's important to not, like, pick up the slack if something's, like, half done.

SCHULTE: Yeah, well, that's what I always did. Through the years, we would have these agreements. And, like, we would - you know, you do this, and I do this. And then, typically, he would always just slack off and wouldn't do it. And then I would always pick it up. And then that would just increase my sense of anger because it would feel so unfair. And that's actually a phenomenon. It's called learned helplessness. So if you have never had a history or a culture or expectation of having to do housework, why would you willingly want to help out? I mean, I can see the sort of human psychology is that you're going to try to get out of it as much as you can if you've never had that responsibility.

So that's one of the things that it's so important to come back then and not rescue, not reinforce that learned helplessness. But again, kind of put it into this neutral zone. Like, you know, think of your family as your own, you know, your own entrepreneurial business. How do you want it to run? You know, would you want your business partner to take up the entire load, you know? That's not a really great way to run a partnership. And so, you know, to bring that sense of awareness of what's fair, to be able to talk about it, but then also not to - for women particularly - not to rescue, not to harp, not to say, well, I would have done it this way. You know, if you want to do that, if you want to hold to certain standards, you have to agree to them because if you want to have higher standards, then, by all means, go ahead and do it. But then you're going to have to recognize that you are part of then reinforcing what's unfair about it.

GROSS: There's also, like, the invisible work. It's, not, like scrubbing the floor or doing the laundry or the dishes. It's, like, scheduling appointments, writing the grocery list, like, figuring out what needs to be done in the house, taking emotional responsibility for your children, making sure that they have what they need. Can you talk about that a little bit, about the invisible things, that it's kind of - it's not that easy to assign because it's about thinking about things and observing things?

SCHULTE: Yeah, so there's a whole body of research around what's called the mental load. And it's something that women also disproportionately bear. And that's everything that you'd mentioned. It's all of the stuff that you have to keep in your mind. It's just an explosion of details and logistics and planning and organizing and making appointments and remembering the appointments and getting people to the appointments, remembering birthdays, doing the kin work. That's another task that typically falls to women - you know, keeping the ties of family and bonds of friends, keeping those strong.

So that's just an awful lot of labor that you can't really see. And it's not like laundry that, you know, you can see when it's done. You only know when people haven't done it if it falls apart or somebody has an emotional meltdown. You know, that it is part of - the mental load is also this emotional labor, taking everybody's emotional temperature, making sure everybody is feeling heard and getting their needs met. And, you know, it can be absolutely exhausting. And when people don't see it and don't recognize it and don't value it, it can be very demoralizing.

GROSS: So how do you teach your partner to have an awareness of that so they can participate in the invisible work if they're not used to thinking that way or observing that way?

SCHULTE: Yeah, I think one of the most important things is making the invisible work visible. And so so many times, you know, we get busy and we do all that work and we don't even think about it. And so it doesn't feel like work to us, even though - to a lot of women - even though we don't recognize just how much bandwidth that takes, how much mental bandwidth that takes. So the first thing is be aware of it yourself. And then share it. And then make it visible. Make it something that you talk about.

You know, something as easy as put both of your names on, you know, lists - listservs that, you know, sports teams or schools or child care facilities. You know, and these experiments that we're running, the BLL experiments, one we call the Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you know. And she got a call at work one day saying, you know, she needed to come pick up her son from school. And her answer was the child has two parents. You called me last time. Call my husband this time. Do things like that. Take turns with all of that kind of mental - the mental load, the planning and organizing. You know, this is real. And these are things that you can point to and talk about. And the first step is to make it visible.

GROSS: What other issues are you hearing about, like, labor divisions at home now that everybody is at home?

SCHULTE: There have been some early research, some early polling that show men think that they're doing, you know, sharing the load. And women don't agree with that, you know. So there's some early data that also shows that women are doing more of the homeschooling, in particular. How that shakes out over time, we're not sure. But it does look like, at least initially, women are bearing more of the brunt of trying to work and care and do everything all under one roof.

GROSS: What are some of the things you're hearing about from couples where both people are working at home and they're trying to deal with doing the work and running the home and taking care of the children and how they're going to divide the responsibilities?

SCHULTE: You know, one of the things that we're hearing is also one of the reasons why the division of labor is so unfair to begin with, and that is so many workplaces are expecting women to be the ones who are in charge. And so they're granting them more flexibility. They're giving them more leeway. And yet, they're expecting men to be the same kind of always on, work devoted, only working, you know, people who only work. They're not recognizing that some couples are trying to share homeschooling. Some couples are trying to share child care. So that's one of the more concerning things that we've been hearing from quite a bit, is that men are not given the same leeway that women are.

GROSS: My guest is Brigid Schulte, the director of the Better Life Lab at the think tank New America. After we take a short break, we'll talk more about how the pandemic is changing home life and work life and how couples share responsibilities for housework and parenting. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Brigid Schulte, the director of the Better Life Lab, a work-life gender equity and social policy program at the think tank New America. She's been investigating how the virus is changing home life, work life and how working couples are dealing with who takes care of the housework, the shopping, the children when the home is also the office. She's also been writing about people who've lost their jobs and people who are risking their lives to do their jobs, often for low pay, and in many instances, without paid sick leave in spite of the recent stimulus package.

So you know, we've been talking so much about how couples are dividing the labor now that so many couples are home and working from home or unemployed from home. But they're kind of in the same boat together. And it's a good opportunity to figure out how to make the share of home work and child care more equal. Have you been looking to same-sex couples, where gender isn't the issue, where any division of labor at home isn't about gender because both members of the couple are from the same gender?

SCHULTE: Well, this is what's so fascinating. And I think this is also helpful for, you know, the pandemic or for couples, really, at any time is that there's, really, a large body of research that shows same-sex couples, they need to make the same decisions about how to divide the labor. They need to make the same decisions as other couples about how to combine work and family. And there's far less stress, tension, hostility. And the main reason why is because they cannot make assumptions based on gender. So they have to communicate.

And that is the most powerful lesson, I think, that couples can take right now and take real solace. Communicate with each other. Throw out the assumptions, what your parents did, what your boss expects. What is it that you want? And how to divide the labor up in a way that works for you and your family? That's a wonderful lesson to learn from same-sex couples right now.

GROSS: So because the pandemic has created all these emergencies, you know, Congress passed the stimulus packages that include certain benefits for certain workers. So I'd like you, if you could, to, like, summarize what a couple of those benefits are and whether you think they're a step in the right direction and will help lead in a good direction in the future.

SCHULTE: Well, that's a great question. And it is important to note that advocates have been working for years to try to get family supportive policies passed. And they've gone, really, nowhere at the federal level. So there's been more activity on the state level because the closer you get to real people and real lives, there's a greater understanding of what families really need to survive these days. So Congress, very quickly, did pass this emergency legislation to grant paid sick days and to grant paid family leave.

So those are good things. And on the surface, they look great. And they finally bring the United States more into - in line with all of the other advanced economies in the world. However, these are temporary. They expire at the end of the year. They don't cover all workers. And most importantly, they don't cover the very workers who probably need it the most, the essential workers who work for big-box retailers, who are stocking the grocery shelves and making the deliveries. They were exempted from paid sick leave laws. And so they still have to make the choice between staying home and not getting paid or going to work sick and paying the bills, which is not good for anybody.

GROSS: Can you explain why they're exempted, like what the exemptions are?

SCHULTE: So Congress exempted large employers, companies with over 500 employees. And the thinking was, well, most of those firms cover their workers. And that's true for - if you work in knowledge, like a knowledge worker - a large law firm, say, or a big financial services firm. But what they left out is that many of the front line, essential workers also work for large corporations. And so they're the ones that have been left out. And those companies, some of them have started to offer voluntary paid sick leave policies, but many don't.

GROSS: And then if you have less than 50 workers, you have an option of opting out, right?

SCHULTE: Exactly. If you're a small firm and you can prove there's a hardship, you can opt out of those family supportive policies. And then the way that they've written the regulations is that there's really no oversight. So you can sort of self-opt out, if you will. So we really don't know how many workers will actually be covered. And then who knows what's going to happen after December when these laws expire?

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab, a work-life gender equity and social policy program at the think tank New America. We'll talk more about how the virus is changing home life and work life after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Brigid Schulte, the director of the Better Life Lab, a work-life gender equity and social policy program at the think tank New America. She's a former Washington Post reporter who covered work-life issues, gender and poverty.

I think one of the many things the pandemic is making us question is, for people who largely work through computers, do they need to be in the office all the time? If they're capable of working at home during the pandemic, should there be more flexibility in the office once things return to a little bit more normal? Like, what kind of rethinking would be good to do about giving people more flexibility?

And you've pointed out, this is especially important for people who are parents and want to - especially when their children are young - want to spend more time at home, get all the work done, but to do it in more flexible hours, to maybe work less in the morning and more in the evening, or whatever suits their child care schedule.

SCHULTE: In a way, I think what's so interesting about this pandemic, as terrifying and as tragic as it is, is that it's really acting like an enormous natural experiment. All of a sudden, all these firms that said we couldn't possibly work remotely, you couldn't possibly have a flexible schedule, now that's the new reality.

And they're finding that they're not only able to do it, but that people actually are working quite well even in crazy, pandemic circumstances, where they're working and caring for kids and worrying about how to get to the grocery store and find masks and disinfectant and doing homeschooling. So I think that when - if we go back to normal, it's not going to be - and I don't think we can return to what it was. And so this is an opportunity to see, how can we reshape work? And in doing that, how will that impact families and gender equality?

GROSS: Do you think the imperative of, like, being in the office was more of a disadvantage to women than men?

SCHULTE: Absolutely. You know, when remote work or flexible work first came into vogue sort of in the 1990s, it was largely driven by technology, because finally you had the technology where you could do that. But it also came up around the time when women were in the workplace. It was sort of seen as an accommodation for working mothers who just kind of couldn't hack it, you know, couldn't meet those ideal worker norms, couldn't stay late. So they needed this accommodation.

So it was always stigmatized as something that a lesser worker, a less dedicated worker would need. And, you know, as someone who worked flexibly and sort of hid it for years, I really - (laughter) I can tell you what an incredibly wrongheaded-notion that is. When you have that sense of control over your schedule so that you're able to manage your caregiving, your work, your life responsibilities as well, you can be incredibly efficient and productive.

And I think the pandemic is finally showing that. And what I'm hoping is that the stigma that it's associated with, with women or lesser workers, that can be removed. And let's just think about, well, what is the work that needs to be done? And open up the notion that it can be done anywhere and, really, by anyone, and that includes people who have caregiving responsibilities, like mothers.

GROSS: You say you hid that you were working at home part of the time. Why were you hiding it? And how did you hide it?

SCHULTE: I did because it was really frowned upon, you know?

GROSS: Was this at The Washington Post?

SCHULTE: Yeah, absolutely. Face time bias is really real. And that's in, virtually, all work cultures out there unless they're very enlightened. I need to see you to see that you're working. You know, it was less so in a newspaper because you're often out reporting. You're in bureaus. So there is some of that. But working at home was really frowned upon. It's like, well, why aren't you in the bureau? And I do remember being in the bureau far from home. My kids were very little. I always had this terrible commute because there was always an accident. The beltway traffic is always terrible in the Washington, D.C., area.

And I remember interviewing somebody. And it was in, you know, this bureau. I knew I still had, like, an hour and a half commute to get home. It was late in the evening. And I heard them making dinner, you know, just kind of the bowl clinking and the water running. And I just - I nearly started to cry - that sense that I was so far from home. I was missing so much of my kids' lives.

And I was doing something that I could so easily have done at home, finished the interview and then gone out to start making my own dinner or sit with my own kids. Instead, I did it in this office and then had this horrendous commute. And by the time I got home, my poor kids needed to be in bed. They were cranky. I kept them up because I wanted to see them, you know? And then they all melted down. And it was a really stressful evening. And none of that really - it wasn't necessary.

GROSS: You know, in terms of worker benefits for paid maternity leave, paid sick days, time to take care of parents or a child who is sick, what are some of the steps you'd like to see coming out of the pandemic? Since the pandemic is changing so many things, destroying many systems, systems are going to have to be rebuilt. So what would you like to see emerge?

SCHULTE: What I would love to see emerge is this recognition that care and family is really central to a good life, to a healthy society and to a functioning and healthy economy, that the separation between work and family just really - it just can't hold. We need to recognize that our policies need to be able to support the families that we have today and not breadwinner, homemaker families, which, really, is not the way families are formed anymore and what our policies still support.

We really need to think about our workplace cultures. How do we reimagine them so that we're not just rewarding the ideal worker who can work all the time and act as if they don't have caregiving responsibilities? How can we open up that sense of a whole human being, an authentic human being with work and life? How can we create work systems that provide opportunity for meaningful work and yet don't eat you alive, don't burn you out? How can we begin to create systems that don't foster this really grotesque inequality, whether it's economic inequality or gender inequality?

You know, it's interesting, we just did a big study looking at men and care. And what we found that was so surprising is that men actually anticipate needing to take time off of work to give care at the same level that women do. They just don't because our policies and our workplace cultures don't support that. So that's what I want to see coming out of this pandemic. How do we create the policies, the workplace cultures and our cultural attitudes that enable so much more equality?

GROSS: Brigid Schulte, thank you so much for talking with us. Stay well.

SCHULTE: Thank you.

GROSS: Brigid Schulte directs the Better Life Lab at the think tank New America. After we take a short break, we'll listen back to our interview with screenwriter and director Lynn Shelton, who directed the indie films "Hump Day," "Your Sister's Sister" and "Sword Of Trust," which starred Marc Maron. She also directed episodes of several TV series, including Marc Maron's series "Maron" and "Mad Men" and "Little Fires Everywhere." This is FRESH AIR.


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