The pandemic has placed an inordinate burden on working mothers, and few solutions have been offered. One of the advice that is often given to women is to demand an equal partnership with their spouse. But, as the author explains through his research and personal experience, this is not always doable. She argues that unequal partnerships are not always predictable or easy to avoid, and advocates that we stop blaming women and resolve to give them more support.
The past two years have brought a deluge of headlines on the pandemic’s toll on working mothers, who shoulder the majority of household chores and child-related chores. Working moms aren’t OK. Working mothers are reaching breaking point. Working moms struggle. Indeed, American mothers are on the brink.
After each article appeared, my social media feeds exploded with comments like, “My husband does 50% of the work taking care of our two children. Then came the refrain: “Yes! My husband is also a 50-50 partner! ” And finally the kicker: “Why don’t women just demand that their partners do their part?
A few years ago, I might also have rung the bell. Now I’m like, “These lucky women probably never got a divorce.”
“Demand a 50-50 partnership” is a compelling rallying cry. Research shows that if professionally ambitious women can’t find a supportive partner, staying single is better for their careers. Once in a relationship, however, it takes more than dividing the dishes, loads of laundry, and bedtime stories for dual-career couples to lead successful lives together. Research from INSEAD professor Jennifer Petriglieri reveals that dual-career couples who thrive together at home and individually at work delve into psychological and social issues in in-depth conversations to reach agreement. They discuss power and control, hopes and fears, and expectations about the roles partners should play in each other’s lives.
But being in what Petriglieri calls a “working couple” is elusive for many women. It was for me. Expecting my husband to value my career as much as his has cost me a three-year battle for divorce and custody, resulted in a liquidated retirement account and a pile of debt to fund litigation, and continues to mean regular periods outside of our young daughter as part of our babysitting program.
I was not naive. I am a gender specialist who wrote my thesis on women executives. I looked up for LeanIn.org, an organization that led the charge to “make your partner a real partner”. I teach negotiation to MBA students and executives.
And my mistake is not unique. Educated and ambitious women today may be looking for real partners, but they don’t necessarily find them. A survey of Harvard Business School alumni found that most women expect to be in equal marriages, but the majority of men expect their own careers to be top priority.
Business professor Beth Livingston has found that if wives simply initiate a negotiation to prioritize their work, it can lead to backlash in the form of less emotional support from their husbands. The situation is just as bad or worse when women are the main breadwinners. Studies document that when a wife earns more than her husband, she devotes more time to household chores, her husband does not necessarily respect his career, and she is more likely to be a victim of his physical assault. Couples whose wives earn more are less satisfied with their marriages and more likely to divorce.
The heavy emotional toll of leaving a marriage or partnership is difficult to measure, but the financial and professional costs are easy to quantify. Women’s household income declines on average by 41% after divorce, more than double that of men.
A romantic partner who supports his career is a wonderful thing for those who have one. But many women with demanding careers don’t.
In the absence of corporate or government policies that support working mothers in the United States, my own research suggests that women rely on a network of parents, in-laws, siblings, friends and children. It is this larger network – in particular in the case of non-united spouses – that determines the professional paths that women will follow. When these people amplify a husband’s expectations that his wife should fill traditional caregiving roles and prioritize her career, women move from the fast lane to the mom lane, dropping promotions and abandoning their powerful jobs. .
On the other hand, when women have people in their networks who offer them logistical and emotional support, they are more likely to stay in their careers and on the path to leadership positions, even if it involves the difficult choice of leaving their marriage. or their romantic partner. These women depend on hired help and extended family – as one executive told me, “an army” – to help raise their children and keep their homes in order. They also receive emotional support from friends and family: reassurance that it’s okay to hire another caregiver or a listening ear when the need arises to talk about gender hostility in the office. or chronic exhaustion at the head of a company.
Indeed, I could not have navigated the litigation or the consequences of my divorce without my parents, who moved across the country to help with childcare; colleagues who covered my lessons when I had to be in court; co-authors, who pushed the research forward when I couldn’t; a virtual writing group, which offered community and responsibility; and so many mother friends, who created a house that extended beyond the four walls of my house.
It is never easy. But the experience of managing a work-family conflict can lead to more empathy and proactive support for other women. Recent research on work-family enrichment shows that becoming a mother improves a woman’s relationship with others at work. In a study, led by Professor Pepperdine Dana Sumpter, women described how having a baby, returning to work and caring for a young child increased their relationship skills, such as networking and relationship building. This means that women are not only more compassionate and understanding of their peers, but also better at their jobs.
Organizations can foster such support by encouraging peer groups and employee resource groups. They are constructive spaces, providing opportunities for women to connect with each other, develop coping skills and strategies, and support each other to support their efforts to combine work and family.
Unequal partnerships are not always predictable or easy to avoid. Once a couple is entangled, staying and leaving can bring great suffering. So let’s stop blaming women. A mother who works without a supportive spouse has enough difficulties; she doesn’t need her peers to proclaim that they got it and suggest that she could too if she was smart enough or feminist enough or knew how to ask.
Instead, as this New Year begins, we can all decide to be part of a more supportive village – lend a hand, listen after a hard day, and encourage working mothers to make their career dreams come true and of family life a reality.