A 5-step plan to reset the unfair division of labor at home during COVID-19

The pandemic has made a reset not only possible, but urgent, say Bridgid Schulte and Haley Swenson of Better Life Lab, the work-life, gender equity, and social policy program at the non-partisan think tank New America.
Balancing a new business and a new baby
Shot of a young woman working at home while holding her newborn baby sonpixdeluxe / Getty Images

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By Brigid Schulte and Haley Swenson

Stephen Dypiangco always thought he and his wife, Ann, shared the load of housework and childcare at home relatively fairly. He’s an entrepreneur living in Pasadena, California and works long hours. She works as a therapist. But it took the coronavirus pandemic and both of them struggling to simultaneously manage working from home, keeping the house running, and caring for and homeschooling their three children, ages 9, 7 and 3, for him to realize just how much more Ann does on a regular basis.

“She does more stuff. And there’s always so much running through her head – household tasks, planning and scheduling, maintenance,” he said. “It’s been a real blind spot for me.”

Not anymore. For example, Dypiangco said he can’t just walk by a basket of unfolded laundry anymore, thinking it’s not his job. The stay-at-home order has opened Dypiangco’s eyes and has given the family an opportunity to reset their division of labor. “I’m adopting more of her mindset,” he said. “That’s been a big change.”

Research shows that women put in about twice as much time as men taking care of children and doing household chores, even when working full-time or bringing in more income as the primary breadwinner. Women’s “second shift” of work at home takes up even more time if you consider all the often-invisible labor of planning, organizing and logistics and the emotional labor of making sure everyone else feels happy and cared for.

This expectation that women should be primarily responsible for housework and childcare and thatcouples should prioritize a man’s career is a major source ofstrife in relationships. It’s also a big reason why women have a hard time competing at work with men, who are able to put in more focused hours on the job because they don’t have to shoulder the same level of responsibility for everything at home.

The rage over how easily couples can slide into lopsided workloads and traditional gender roles led Brigid to write her book, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No one has the Time.” And it was through her experience working with her husband, Tom, and family to more fairly share the load that we began developing Better Life Lab Experiments, BLLx, to help others begin to do the same.

Brigid and her husband started by creating space to talk – without rancor – about the bucket of work that needs to be done to run a house, the standards they both could agree on, who liked doing what, and how to come up with systems to divide the load fairly not have to constantly nag or renegotiate.

Brigid Schulte is the director of the Better Life Lab, the work-life, gender equity, and social policy program at the non-partisan think tank New America. She is also author of the New York Times bestselling book" Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time."Courtesy of Brigid Schulte.

Then they started with small experiments: Last one out of bed makes the bed. Making the bed means the pillows are on the bed, not on the floor. Tom likes to be out and about, so he does grocery shopping. And Brigid doesn’t “rescue” him if he forgets something. Tom isn’t a “helper.” He’s a “partner.” Owning a task means doing everything from planning to execution. Brigid likes to be outside, so she does yardwork. What Brigid soon noticed is that her rage over the uneven workload evaporated. Family relationships improved. And she had more mental bandwidth to think and do other things.

The pandemic has made a reset not only possible, but urgent.

“In the world before coronavirus, we’d think, ‘We’ll figure out how to divide things up later. We’re busy working parents, we don’t have time,’” Dypiangco said. “Now, it’s critical. We need to be way more intentional about how we collaborate, communicate and establish a new standard of normal, because if we don’t, it’s all going to fall on her. And then where will we be? In really bad shape.”

So, where to begin?

1. Inventory.

Now is the time to be practical and to focus on the things that really have to be done to keep your household working. That’s why we recommend starting out with a quick but exhaustive inventory of all the tasks your household needs to be doing right now, before making plans about how to divide the work.

With our “Choreganizer,” we’ve started a list that may work for you. Make a copy of our document and modify it for your own family, especially now that the pandemic has changed so much of family life. Before dividing up the tasks in what feels like a fair way for everyone, take note of who has been doing them already, by default. Talk about patterns where you see them. How did it get this way? What can you do to make this fairer and more effective for everyone? What will the family gain when you do?

Haley Swenson is the deputy director of the Better Life Lab at New America and an expert on work and gender inequality.Courtesy of Haley Swenson.

2. Observe.

Encourage your partner to join you in simply paying attention to who actually does what as the days go on. In less stressful circumstances, we might advise a more structured accountability system, but now is the time for a little more leeway and grace. We call this the “Just Notice” experiment, where we encourage you to simply observe your household and the members of your family to understand your couple and family dynamics, the assumptions each of you makes and why, who does what, and how the arrangement makes everyone feel.

3. Communicate.

So often, we get so busy, we fall into patterns and make assumptions about what others in our family see and think. Now, with normal busy-ness disrupted, take time to talk to each other about how the division of labor feels. What’s working? What could work better?

Take each other’s perspective to heart. Talk about your vision for how you’d like your family to function. Do you want to feel like partners, or a team working together? What would it feel like if chores were shared more fairly? What would you do with your time if you didn’t have to nag or be nagged? This open conversation will be the basis for getting “buy in” from your family to make change.

4. Gratitude.

When you see someone in your family stepping up —unloading the clean dishes from dishwasher or sweeping the floor or starting on lunch, even if it’s because you asked them to —say thank you. Research shows that expressing simple gratitude out loud for everyone in the household to hear can transform the dynamic of your “team” of household players, creating greater unity and improved morale.

5. Full Ownership.

Lastly, when it’s time to handoff a task or two that you’ve been carrying to someone else, try this experiment inspired by author Eve Rodsky’s book, "Fair Play". It’s important that you not just randomly ask someone to do a single task, while keeping your overall responsibility for thinking about it and planning it.

Instead, give your partner or other family member Full Ownership over the set of tasks they’re taking on.

For example, maybe it’s time to hand off the task of cooking dinner to your significant other. You might be tempted to make it as easy as possible for them, by deciding it’s taco night and rounding up all the ingredients before asking them to cook. This approach just ensures that cooking dinner is something you still own (you just brought in temporary help). And nobody likes to be brought in last minute on someone else’s project. Instead, give your partner or other family member full ownership over dinner. Trust your significant other or family member to do the thinking and planning you’ve been doing, even if they see pizza night where you saw taco night. You’ll get more relief, and they will feel like they can actually step into their new role and take pride in doing it their own way.

It was in taking the time to communicate that the Dypiangco family learned that their own family backgrounds drove many of their assumptions about who should own different tasks - Ann did more at home because, she assumed Stephen’s career was more important, and she felt guilty if she didn’t do everything her own at-home mother did.

Now, the pandemic is forcing them to break new ground. “We’re working together to make this a more equal partnership,” he said. “We’re realizing it doesn’t come naturally if we don’t really foster it.”

Brigid Schulte is the director of the Better Life Lab, the work-life, gender equity, and social policy program at the non-partisan think tank New America. Schulte is a former Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post journalist and author of the New York Times bestselling book” Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.”

Haley Swenson is the deputy director of the Better Life Lab at New America and an expert on work and gender inequality. Swenson manages BLLx, a behavioral science-informed tool for helping families more fairly share the load at home.