Tired of being superwoman? Me too.
Growing up, I thought my Mom was wonder woman. After all, she raised five kids, worked at least two jobs, helped with my Dad’s business, took care of her parents, contributed to our parish, and shuttled the five of us to endless music, sports and swimming lessons (we all play at least two musical instruments).
She, with that resilient fortitude of most women her era, would say that she had it no worse than her contemporaries. Which makes me feel like an even greater loser on those days when making it out of the house, with only one child in tow, feels like an Olympian-level feat.
Despite our inclination, however, to think it’s “just me”, pretty much every working mother can relate to those (endless) days of feeling tired, stressed and overwhelmed. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise when you look at the data which show that women with partners and children are over five times more likely than men to do all or most of the household work.
Bad enough as that is, what about the over 40% of women who are the primary breadwinners in their home? Even they are 3.5 times more likely to be working the “double shift” than men in the same situation.
Wonder Woman be damned, this gender inequality just didn’t seem right in this day and age, so I decided to conduct my own unofficial social study. My experiment started when I was pregnant. Granted, while I was the only one who had to deal with ten weeks of all-day “morning” sickness, the physical demands of pregnancy paled in comparison to the monumental to-do list that needed to be completed before the baby’s arrival.
There I found myself, bleary-eyed at one o’clock in the morning, going through endless websites and “top ten” lists for the fifty must-have baby items. That was the first time I caught myself. Why was it solely my job to pick all this stuff out? I didn’t know a single thing about cribs, bottles, or strollers (which seemingly require a degree in engineering to operate). Surely my husband John — as a father of five children already — had an obvious comparative advantage when it came to this stuff?
And so began my quest to share responsibilities. I asked John to pick out the crib and supplied him with my initial research. Two days later, he dropped a file on my desk with three handwritten pages of notes on his “short list” of cribs. He let out a frustrated sigh and said, “This stuff is insane. It took me two days to whittle it down to three.”
Ah, welcome to my world. One down, forty-nine more items to go. Which of the twenty-four items would you like to handle next, dear?
Dropping the ball, and the act
In spite of this modest victory, I came to realize that achieving a 50/50 split of household chores is more nuanced than I imagined.
As any new mother will tell you, the birth of our daughter marked a transformation in the amount and type of “household chores” our home requires to remain borderline functional. And I’m lucky: when it comes to divvying up the jobs, John is an incredibly supportive partner with a flexible career that allows him to shoulder some of the domestic burden. I know many women don’t have that luxury, especially single mothers (who truly are superheroes). For others fortunate to be in dual-income situations, however, the availability and cost of childcare alone make for an ongoing struggle.
Despite my fortunate marital situation, and my own conscious effort towards an equitable split of household work, it’s remarkable how many times I’ve had to catch myself. It’s crazy the extent to which my default mindset tells me that everything to do with our home and daughter is my responsibility. It has been illuminating — and terrifying — to observe how natural it is for me, unchecked, to take on all the household chores.
A few months after Rosie was born, I was exhausted and in tears one day when John walked into the room and handed me a book that had arrived in the post. Months before, I’d pre-ordered Drop the Ball: Achieving more by doing less. Talk about the right message at the right time.
In her book, my friend Tiffany Dufu walks through how to balance the impossibly conflicting demands of work, parenting, and marriage. Her advice? Share the mental load. Stop worrying about running out of toothpaste or remembering the kids’ dentist appointments. Tiffany and her husband keep a spreadsheet of all the household chores and decide together who is doing what and, more importantly, what can be dropped.
That last point is key: to have success (or more importantly, happiness) in life and work, women have to make the conscious decision to drop a few of the countless balls we keep in the air. Tiffany so aptly reminds women that someone may have to do it, but it doesn’t always have to be you, nor does it have to be done exactly the way you would do it.
Turns out, for me, it was a message that took a while to internalize and proved far easier said than done.
Ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it
Getting to 50/50 means that you don’t have to do 60–70% of things, but it also means you don’t get them done your way. I’m totally ashamed to admit what it took for me to stop the insanity of refolding the laundry after John had done it, simply because the clothes weren’t folded exactly the way I would do it. In the end, living with John buying a bunch of unwashed spinach (instead of the nice pre-washed kind) or reminding myself that Rosie is not going to be permanently scarred because he put her clothes on inside out, is a small price to pay for the liberty and sanity of better equality at home.
When I relayed my epiphany at an event for female executives, one of the women shared how she makes lunch for her two boys each morning — exactly as they like. When she needed to travel on business, she gave the lunchbox instructions to her husband, who immediately told her that he reckoned the boys were big enough to make their own lunches. Horrified, she asked what would happen if they didn’t do it right or went to school without enough food. His response? “Well, I guess they’ll be a bit hungry, but that no doubt they’ll get it right the next time.”
Hence the proverbial ball was not only dropped, but the case had been made for its permanent removal from this one Mom’s juggling act.
Hanging up your cape, at work
Taking on every thankless task at home is one thing, but it’s a habit that many women let spill over into the workplace, and when we do, the consequences are not benign.
Think about it, how many times have you experienced the default expectation that one of the women will take the notes during a meeting? Or how often is it a female colleague who plans the birthday celebration in the breakroom or organizes the holiday party?
Turns out, these “assignments” aren’t a random pattern but rather indicative of behavioral and cultural norms that have subtly crept into many organizations. Not surprisingly, they have significant and negative ramifications on women’s careers.
Professor Linda Babcock, author of the groundbreaking book on gender and negotiation “Women Don’t Ask” has undertaken some illuminating research on this issue. Her impetus came from a startling realization that she spent a lot of time doing favors for colleagues and performing extra work-related activities that had no bearing on how she was evaluated. While her efforts were good for the university and her colleagues, these tasks detracted from her own career. And Linda was not alone: she and several colleagues formed the “I Just Can’t Say No” club when they realized their commonality.
Remarkably, Babcock discovered that men and women both turn to female colleagues when they need a favor. The expectation — and unfortunate reality — is that women are more likely to volunteer to help and also more likely to say “yes” to a request. As a result, women lose out on promotions and advancement opportunities because they spend more time working on non-promotable tasks than their male counterparts. Adding insult to injury, these types of tasks have the unfortunate side effect of lowering a woman’s perceived productivity and value, as these tasks are considered more “menial.”
When managers ask for these favors or tasks, it’s even more difficult for women to turn them down, especially if they believe it will impact their “likability” at work (a standard men don’t usually face). It’s incumbent upon managers and leaders to be aware of this behavior and ensure that uncompensated and thankless tasks are evenly distributed among men and women, but women themselves have to become better at saying no.
A problem shared is a problem solved
Part of the reason Linda and her colleagues created the “I Just Can’t Say No” club was to provide each other with a sounding board for all those task requests. When other women weigh in, it becomes easier to recognize the opportunity costs of saying “yes,” to encourage each other in saying “no,” and to bring an end to the explanations, apologies, and guilt for declining.
Throughout my career, its become clear that the first thing women need to do is share our experiences, and to not be afraid to put your hand up when you do feel overwhelmed at home, or taken for granted at work. Just knowing that you’re not alone in all that you’re encountering is often enough to bolster your confidence to do something about it.
Supporting each other in our efforts is so important because as much as there are systemic issues that impede women’s advancement, there’s also the powerful “invisible hand” that we place on ourselves. It starts with recognizing our own innate inclinations and behaviors and then rewiring our minds, and reworking our routines so that we can “drop the ball” and say “no” without feeling that it strips us of our Super Woman status.
After all, while we wonder women may be able to do it all, it doesn’t mean we should.
Dr. Anita Sands is an independent board director, international public speaker and creator of the #wisdomcards series. She writes and comments regularly on issues relating to boards, technology, and diversity & inclusion. Find out more about her at www.dranitasands.com or follow her @dranitasands. All comments personal.