27 September 2023

Has COVID increased the juggle? Many women say yes

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Samantha Sutherland* explores the experiences of working mums during COVID-19 work from home arrangements.

“I cracked it again today. Three frazzled kids, a ton of school work, and a man who slips away up to the loft.

“I got jack-all done and was raging with frustration by 3pm. Took the kids to the park and purged on B who said ‘babysitter is here tomorrow, why don’t you just go in to the office?’”

Sarah and her husband, B, both work big jobs. She is full-time in digital strategy and change for a major Australian retailer, while he is in tech sales.

When COVID hit and offices shut down, they agreed they would share the spare-room-turned-home office and take turns watching children.

One month in, Sarah was full time at the dining room table juggling home schooling three children and her demanding role.

Her husband retreated upstairs saying his work was offering no concessions for parents, and he needed to get back to work.

“The thing is, I know if I asked to have some time in the loft office he’d give it to me, but why is the assumption that it’s his and I have to ask for it? We’re both working full time!”

Kate works in institutional banking and her husband is in professional services.

They have two small children who interrupt Kate multiple times a day but see their father’s closed office door as an instruction not to enter.

Mandy started a new full-time role at the start of 2020 and says she’s lucky to have held onto that role throughout the pandemic, but says, “I have my ‘office’ in my bedroom. I have no space to myself alone. My husband has his office to escape to, but I’ve struggled with not having my own dedicated space.”

It’s a story we’ve heard over and over. Now Women’s Agenda is supporting research into the impacts of COVID on working women and we’d love for you to have your say.

Women on the brink of burnout

Working mothers across Australia were already overwhelmed.

We know men take more leisure time than women, and women do the bulk of domestic and caring labour.

Now COVID has increased that domestic load as more people are at home more of the time.

That means more cooking, cleaning, tidying and managing the needs of multiple people – and the work isn’t being shared by men.

Mandy’s experience is that the increased domestic load is falling on her, and when there is a clash the assumption is that her husband’s work takes precedence.

“I work full-time outside the home normally so things like laundry and shopping were things I would do on weekends or ask my husband to do. Being home meant I found myself doing more during the day.

“My husband did not take on more! I would have liked my husband to be more present and available while I had to work.

“Often, we were both in meetings at the same time and his work took priority. I think it’s really hard to be ‘equal’ even in this era and so often, male attitudes place their work ahead of their wives, maliciously or not.

“We’ve talked too about the division of labour and I explained the idea of ‘mental load’ so he is more aware of the balance now.

“I think it took lockdown to put a lot of these sorts of issues under the microscope.”

Kate has found the increase in pressure hard to handle. She keeps putting one foot in front of the other, but it’s not been easy.

“Every now and then I just feel completely overwhelmed, and then I feel frustrated with myself for feeling overwhelmed.

“If you’re trying to fit in exercise, work, kids… you have to be very strong to look after yourself in all that.

“Seventy per cent of men who work full time have a stay-at-home partner and only 30 per cent have wives work.

“But 70 per cent of women who full time have partners who also work full time. All these guys I work with have their full time stay at home wife.

“People were more understanding [during COVID] but the pressures were the same. Work was relentless.”

“Absolutely the load increased. We got rid of the cleaner, there are more people in the house all the time, they’re eating more, there’s more shopping to do, there’s a bigger mess.

“I remember getting angry at a ScoMo quote in The Australian calling out the heroes who have been impacted by COVID.

“He said something like, ‘people who’s been impacted – the nurses, the doctors and the women at home who are working’ – not the men who are working at home.”

We spoke to Isiah McKimmie, a Gottman-trained couples therapist, and asked what themes she’s seeing in the couples she works with.

“COVID has put a lot of extra pressure on people and relationships all around.

“Often, it’s meaning women are trying to juggle more balls at once.

“It’s a common scenario that women are still doing the bulk of things around the house and carrying most of the mental load.

“Things that were bubbling away under the surface have really been brought to a head with the extra pressure. No one is getting adequate time and space for themselves.”

There is no work-life separation anymore

The conversation used to focus on work-life balance.

Technology made it possible for us to work at home – remember when it was exciting to check your work email all the time on your new blackberry? – and that has amplified with so many people working from home.

There’s no clear boundary between work and home anymore – your home may well be your office now.

We are seeing an increase in flexibility, but that has brought some new challenges with it.

Mandy has had the same experience as Kate, finding it difficult to share parenting with her partner.

“It’s been a challenge trying to balance home and work life with no separation between the two. It’s been hard explaining to my son that I’m home but not available.”

“It has obviously become more flexible than it was pre-COVID, when working from home could only happen for one to two days a week, for standard and fixed hours, with manager approval.

“Now hours can vary depending on need – so I varied my hours to 7:30-3:30pm. It took a pandemic for management to realize that home life impacts work life!”

It’s definitely positive that more offices are allowing flexibility, and the pandemic showed that large workforces can quickly shift to remote working – and that we don’t need to be in the office to work productively.

But we’re also seeing an increase in workload for lots of people that ends up negating the flexibility.

Kate shares, “I work four days, but I haven’t had a Friday off since February. I took a 20 per cent paycut to have that flexibility, and now I’m hearing about these men picking their children up from school and I feel a bit bitter.

“We’re talking about these guys having all this time with their family – which is amazing – but all the females doing that are getting paid less for it.”

Sarah’s experience has been similar. She’s been granted more flexibility, but it’s resulted in longer hours overall.

“I’m being given that time during the day as I need it to homeschool and look after children, but I’m online until 10 or 11 o’clock at night most days.

“The volume of work has increased as people were let go but the team is expected to do more. I’m exhausted.”

Many people want a workplaces to reassessment how they operate as they start bringing people back in.

Companies need to understand what workers actually need in terms of flexibility and ensure all genders are treated fairly. The days of women being paid part time and working full time are numbered.

It’s not all bad

With all the challenges it brought, COVID has created a reassessment of what’s important, and have been enjoying some of the space that was created by cancelled after-school activities, less socialising and fewer options for weekend activities.

Isiah shares that many of the couples she works with are reconsidering where they want to put their time and energy.

“Families were so busy and that’s really slowed down. It has meant couples are getting more time together.

“I’m seeing some partners turn to each other a bit more to help ease the increased stress and that has brought them closer.”

Mandy agreed with Isiah, saying that as things return to normal,

“I will try not to over-commit to plans – having to slow down showed me that sometimes it’s actually better to make no plans and see no people, rather than feeling as if we’re on a treadmill all the time.

“I plan to work three days remotely and two in the office going forward. I am more productive and able to focus a bit more on self-care and exercise without a commute.”

Whilst Sarah has been working long hours, she’s enjoying the quiet weekends and hope work will readjust in time.

“I’m loving keeping things close to home, and not spending all my ‘down time’ racing between activities.

“I chronically overcommit and we all get exhausted. I’m going to try to keep more space for the family, less after school activities, and actually schedule in time where the kids are bored and we’re at home doing nothing.”

Kate wants to see flexibility become more available for everyone, and for pay decreases that women took be readdressed.

“I hope people will end up working two or three days a fortnight at home which is a good thing for families and ultimately a good thing for women.

“But let’s be clear about what we’re doing. If you’ve been taking your kids to rugby training and didn’t used to do that, then maybe the women who were taking that flexibility should get paid the same.”

*Samantha Sutherland runs female leadership development programs and workshops building inclusive leadership capability. She is a change and strategy expert, and host of the Women at Work Podcast

This article first appeared at womensagenda.com.au

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