Center for Women & Wealth

The line between work and home has blurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and more than ever, many working parents are struggling to balance all of the responsibilities that come with having a career and managing a household. We recently sat down virtually with Eve Rodsky, best-selling author of “Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live),” and Brigid Schulte, best-selling author, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and director of the Better Life Lab at New America, to discuss how to live and work together with less tension, fairer division of labor and more leisure time.

Eve, what is “fair play,” and how did you come up with this concept?

Eve Rodsky: I came up with the concept of “fair play” eight years ago during a time when the space-time continuum felt like it was collapsing on me – something many are feeling today. It started with a text from my husband saying, “I’m surprised you didn’t get blueberries.” I pulled over and started sobbing. I had just left my job to start my own business and was struggling to manage my two children and everything in my home life. I was thinking, “I used to be able to manage employee teams, and now I am at a place where I am so overwhelmed that I can’t even manage a grocery list.” More importantly, this was not the career-marriage combo I thought I was going to have. I had vowed from an early age that I would have an equal partner in life. How did I end up being the default – or the “she-fault” – for every household responsibility?

As it turns out, what was happening to me was happening to other women as well. In heterosexual couples, two-thirds or more of what it takes to run a household or family falls on women. This work is often called emotional labor, the mental load or invisible work. It comes down to how we as a society view women’s time. We value and guard men’s time yet view women’s time as if it is infinite, like sand. There’s a different expectation of how women are supposed to use their time.

The value of time – what time people have and how they use it – is important. Brigid, tell us about the data you’ve found in your work linked to this.

Brigid Schulte: We do tend to think of men’s time as precious and finite and women’s time as infinite. I spent a lot of time looking at time use research, and a lot of this comes down to perception.

First of all, women have always worked. For much of human history, the population lived in an agricultural community – all of these women were working mothers! The notion that a woman should work inside the home happened during the Industrial Revolution, when work moved outside of the home, and men took that over. Then, the women’s movement in the 1970s and 1980s opened up opportunities. However, you also have to look at economic trends – wages started stagnating, so families needed that second worker.

Women’s lives changed. What did not change were workplaces, public policies and men’s behavior and use of time. If you look at time diary data today, even though a majority of women work and the majority of children are being raised in families where all available parents are working, the societal structures haven’t changed to accommodate this. Women are spending twice as much time doing housework and childcare, and once you get into higher-income categories, working mothers are spending more time with their children than stay-at-home moms did in the 1960s. To continue to prioritize children and families, women have given up their leisure time, including time for sleep, personal care and adult relationships.

We have structural issues that we need to solve, but one thing we can do to help in the meantime is to shift that mental mindset. Women have been conditioned to think they need to earn leisure time or time to themselves, and the only way to earn it is to get to the end of a long to-do list. A little pocket of time opens up, and we instantly jump to the next item on our list. This creates a vicious cycle and leads to burnout at work and home. Give yourself permission to recognize that you don’t need to earn time off or leisure.

Eve, you talk about we can establish fairness in our home by setting up certain structures. Tell us how we can do this.

ER: A lot of it comes with granting ourselves permission. I remember being at a breast cancer march with a group of friends, and for three hours one morning, we gave ourselves permission to be present for that cause. All of a sudden, questions started pouring in from our husbands – in total, there were 30 calls and 46 texts for 10 women in 30 minutes. They were asking us everything from, “When are you coming home?” to “Where is the soccer bag?” to “Do the kids need to eat?” Originally, we planned to go to lunch that day, but instead, we looked at each other, said maybe we left our partners too much to do and went home to do our tasks.

We are all overwhelmed with decision fatigue in the home. We don’t treat our home as our most important organization. We’re deciding who is setting the table when it’s late and we’re already hangry. We would never walk into our boss’s office and say, “Hey, what should I be doing today? I will wait here until you tell me what to do.” But this is often the dynamic in our homes, and that needs to change. Men have just as much cognitive function as we do, but we don’t value the labor at home.

It’s not about a 50-50 split – it’s about ownership. I call it the life-changing magic of mustard. Someone has to know your son likes yellow mustard – this is the conception step. Then, someone has to monitor that mustard when it is running low and put it on the grocery list – this is the planning phase. Then, someone has to go to the store to purchase mustard – this is the execution. In heterosexual relationships, men are stepping in at execution. The concept around fair play is that whoever is pushing the grocery cart is owning the entire process.

Then, the most important thing is how we communicate. We need to start investing in communication and treat it as a practice that we do every day.

BS: I can relate to the process of finding systems that feel fair in marriage. I hit a point where I was so angry that I was doing everything. In a moment of calm, my husband and I took a long walk, and I interviewed him to figure out what had happened. While we started out as partners and shared responsibilities, we realized things changed the minute we brought a child home. That is the turning point for almost every couple. Our systems are set up to prioritize women taking leave after having a baby; however, while more companies are offering paid paternity leave, men aren’t using it as much.

What is interesting is that many men are saying they want to be active caretakers. In our recent nationally representative survey on men and care, when we asked people if they anticipated taking time off to give care, the same percentage of men and women said they expected to need to; the difference is that men didn’t do it. Men being involved at home is one of the key pieces on the final frontier of gender equality. If you want gender equality at work, you need it at home. In addition, in countries where men are encouraged to take time for care, that involvement lasts a lifetime. The outcomes are incredible for family stability and child development.

The time-space continuum right now has collapsed; everything we do is centered in the home. How do we find leisure time during this strange moment we are in?

ER: I call this “unicorn space.” It’s about making your leisure time nutritious and is an active pursuit of what makes you, you, which impacts your longevity and overall health. The only way you are going to reclaim this is by balancing the gender equity in your household.

Getting this balance requires three things. The first is boundaries. We need to feel we deserve permission to be unavailable. The next is systems. Then, the most important thing is how we communicate. We need to start investing in communication and treat it as a practice that we do every day.

Brigid, looking at the use of our work time, how do we think about working smarter, better and not necessarily longer?

BS: The first thing goes back to what Eve said, and that is boundaries. We have people who are overwhelmed all day right now – they start working early in the morning, have interrupted days and work late at night to make up for it. The first thing to do is give yourself an enormous break. This is not normal remote and flexible work; this is survival. Any company looking at this time to make decisions about remote work is looking at the wrong metrics.

Ratchet down your expectations, and focus on communicating with your colleagues and managers. Be clear about the work you are doing and what is most important. We need clear communication to help us prioritize and manage expectations.

Once you have your priorities and boundaries, focus on intentional scheduling. Put that time for a big project on your calendar before it gets filled with meetings. We tend to think that a busy calendar makes us productive and busy. Instead, we need to think of our time and schedule like an art gallery, where we choose deliberately which things we are going to put on the wall. The other thing I encourage you to do is create slack on your calendar – give yourself some breathing room.

This is not normal remote and flexible work; this is survival.

If this unintended national experiment of working from home leads to a more permanent extension, does that help matters?

BS: This is one of the most exciting things happening right now and could lead to changing the way we work, more gender equity and more balance. It is time to think of different measures for good work other than facetime or hours worked. There is evidence that during this time, men are helping and doing more work at home. Couples are seeing the imbalances and sharing more responsibilities because it is so obvious. There is a recalibration at both work and home that could potentially be exciting and life-changing.

ER: When I wrote “Fair Play,” one of my goals was to make invisible work visible. This pandemic has done that. On the positive side, men are doing more watching of the children and helping with more meals, but there’s still a lot of other things they are not doing. We need to get men to take over full tasks from start to execution.

How does invisible work manifest in professional work?

ER: Just as there is invisible work at home, there is invisible labor that is often gendered at work. For example, women are often the ones who plan the office parties, take notes and create office culture. It is important for everyone to recognize that the invisible labor both at home and work is a drag on women’s time and ability to think. Men spend the same amount of time at work, but they don’t have the mental load women have when it comes to dealing with the home. I’m hopeful that if we can all focus on fair play and alleviating some of this mental load, that can change.

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