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Having a Partner: Gender Equity At Home

"Women are not going to be equal outside the home

until men are equal in it."

-Gloria Steinem

I believe in this statement. In my bones, in my soul I believe it.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, we’re going to spend some time talking about having a PARTNER in your life and the impacts at home, at work and on society.

Let’s start with some DATA on gender equality in the workforce and at home:

In 2019, 57.4% of women participated in the labor force. Women thus represent approximately 47% of the total labor force. While we make up almost half of the labor force, we have not relinquished our duties at home and thus we are often doing double duty. In one study of female and male physicians, they found that when looking at domestic labor, including childcare, female physicians worked on average 30 hours more per week at home compared to their male colleagues. The study found that female physicians spent less time on professional work with men at 49.5 hours per week and women at 36.7 hours per week, but overall with combined domestic and professional work, women were at 90.5 hours per week compared to their male colleagues at 68.8 hours. While we have much more equitable numbers and representation in the labor force now than ever before, we still have miles to gain on equity at home. This topic is so pertinent as we continue to trudge through COVID as we see larger numbers of women leaving the workforce and the field of medicine often due to the need for more flexibility balancing work and home responsibilities.

Okay so let’s share a little more data about these domestic responsibilities.

It is important to note that the studies we’re looking at are referring to heterosexual couples. When looking at same-sex couples and the division of home labor, there is evidence to suggest a much more egalitarian division of home labor than among heterosexual couples.

In one study, married or partnered heterosexual couples in the US were surveyed about management of household tasks. They found that women are much more likely than men to:

  • do laundry (58% W, 13% M, 28% shared)

  • clean the house (51%W, 9%M, 37% shared)

  • prepare meals(51%W, 17%M, 32% shared)

  • care for children on a daily basis (50% W, 7%M, 42% shared)

  • do the grocery shopping (45%W, 18%M, 37%shared)

  • wash dishes (42%W, 19%M, 36% shared).

Men were more likely to:

  • keep the car in good condition (12%W, 69%M, 18% shared)

  • do yardwork (10%W, 59% M, 20% shared).

The only task that was even was paying the bills with women at 37%, men at 34% and 29% shared.

When you dig into this data further, you see a few important things:

  1. The perceptions about who does what at home differ. Men and women are each more likely to say that they perform an equal or larger share of the work than their partner does. So these numbers are imperfect at best.

  2. In households where both parents work, we DO see that men do slightly more household work, including sharing responsibilities of childcare.

  3. When the female’s income is higher than her husbands, he takes on a greater role in all of these tasks. This fact is great for female physicians who may be the breadwinner at home, but also is that how we should divide the work?

Why having a PARTNER benefits us and our families:

We have to establish two things here:

  • Being a working mom is actually BENEFICIAL to our kids and to changing societal standards for the future.

  • Having a partner at home who is involved in parenting (aka an involved father) is also BENEFICIAL to our kids and families.

Let’s talking about the BENEFITS of being a working mom. So many of us feel “mom guilt” when we’re trying to strike a balance between our personal and professional lives. We wonder if we are doing what is best for our families, and if we have them, for our children. This data should brighten your day:

  • Daughters of employed mothers perform better in their eventual careers than the daughters of stay-at-home moms, (see below image from HBR). These statistics remained true when controlling for mothers education level.

  • Sons of working moms are more likely to have more egalitarian gender views, spend more time caring for family members, and tend to choose wives who are also employed.

  • Kids of working moms are equally HAPPY (aka we’re not ruining our children’s lives by working. When both daughters and sons were asked about their overall life satisfaction, adult children of employed moms reported being just as happy as adult children of stay-at-home moms.

  • Children of employed mothers had significantly more education than children of mothers who are not employed.

Having an involved father benefits our children and families:

  • Studies show that kids who grow up with an involved father, (in addition to an involved mother) have:

    • stronger cognitive and motor skills

    • enjoy elevated levels of physical and mental health

    • become better problem-solvers

    • are more confident, curious, and empathetic

    • Are more likely to go to college

    • Are less likely to engage in criminal activity

  • Research from the University of Pennsylvania found that children who feel a closeness and warmth with their father are twice as likely to enter college, 75 percent less likely to have a child in their teen years, 80 percent less likely to be incarcerated, and half as likely to show various signs of depression.

  • Studies show that when men get a chance to be home following the birth of a child (family leave/paternity leave), they become more involved fathers, and not just for the short term. The study looked at the years after a father took paternity leave and found a persistent impact on gender dynamics within the households with fathers spending more time involved in childcare and household labor.

Let’s talk about having a PARTNER:

Let me start this by telling you that I have already done all the things wrong AND that I do not believe there is a “right” way to do it. We all have to find what works for us.

When I say I’ve done them all wrong, trust me I have. I was married in residency and by residency graduation I found myself getting a divorce. While there are many reasons behind that, a central one was not having a partner. A few key points I learned from that experience:

  • How you start your relationship matters. If you start the relationship doing everything and then expect him to miraculously take over, you’re going to be disappointed. Children only increase the imbalance in a relationship, so starting the relationship with a focus on equality is imperative.

  • How he was raised matters. Men who were raised by stay at home mothers are more likely to see that as the norm. Men who were raised by working moms have been shown to spend more time caring for family members each week. Men raised by working moms were also shown to hold more egalitarian gender attitudes (even more than women raised by working moms), and they are more likely to choose wives who are employed outside the home.

  • Sharing your goals matters. You have to be really open about talking about what your life, work and relationship goals are. At one point during my prior marriage, my ex asked me how long I would stay out of work when we started a family. He didn’t mean maternity leave. He meant how many YEARS would I stay home - out of the hospital, not practicing medicine. For some this is their desire. It was NEVER mine. Discussing these long term plans early in a relationship to ensure all parties understand and agree is so important.

I currently have a partner that is truly a partner. This does NOT mean that we split everything 50/50. This also does NOT mean that we don’t have squabbles over who is doing more, who is not doing enough, or who is feeling overwhelmed. This ALL still occurs.

If you’re expecting a zen moment when your relationship hits 50/50 that looks like the image below, you may be waiting a LONG time.

Finding that balance is more like walking on a rickety hanging bridge. Your balance gets affected by your surroundings. You get blown in the wind. It requires flexibility and agility. Your feet fall in between the wooden planks and you help each other out and keep moving. It’s imperfect. It’s wobbly. It is ANYTHING but balanced.

Some advice:

Do NOT be a gatekeeper. Often, men cannot or do not do more at home, because we (the women) do not let them. We let them do it and then we chastise them for how they do it, or we redo it because it wasn’t done the right way (aka the way we want). This is gatekeeping behavior. It was first described in the 1970’s and is something we are still combating today. It has been shown to be more prevalent in women who internalizes society’s standards about being a “good mom” - aka the more we stress over being a good mom, the less likely we are to let dad help us out!

How do we combat this?

  • We have to allow our partner to do things the way he wants to do them - even when it is not the way we do it, even when it is not pretty, even when it is not PERFECT. Key point: DO NOT LET PERFECT BE THE ENEMY OF DONE.

  • Figure out what things you have to do yourself and that you cannot relinquish control of. Find out which things you can. I do relatively no laundry. My husband is BETTER than I am at laundry. He has asked me NOT to attempt to do it! In contrast, I know that my husband cannot match his own clothes. (My husband is also aware of this and it is a common joke in our household.) So for the regular day to day, I let him dress my son and am happy my child is dressed, who cares if it matches. For special events and occasions where I do care how my son looks, I pick out the outfit and set it out for dad to dress him. My husband then fights him to get the clothes on.

Also we have to recognize that the majority of the cognitive load still often falls to women. In my household, THIS is the biggest struggle. I know what needs to be done. I feel the stress on my shoulders of the long to-do list looming - bills need to be paid, plans for the weekend need to be finalized, a meal plan for the week needs to be made, groceries need to be ordered, etc. I see it. Often my husband does NOT. This leads to me either doing the task myself or delegating it to him in the form of “hey can you do me a favor?” Doing me a favor is not the same as equally doing the chores.

How do we combat this?

  • Make a list together of the things that need to be done and divide it up together. Remember to let him do things his way. My husband is the primary cook in our house. Prior to our child, we often cooked together. Now I spend time wrangling the toddler while he cooks dinner. I used to plan meals for the week and do all the grocery ordering as well. Now he chooses what he wants to cook and can make the plan for the week, put it in our shared calendar and order the groceries accordingly.

  • Each partner needs to be in charge of specific tasks/activities. That way we are not constantly delegating tasks or asking for favors. Divide them up. He has his. Let him get them done.

  • OUTSOURCE! You only have so much time in a day. Find things that you can outsource and take advantage. Things I outsource or have heard of friends outsourcing include:

    • Grocery shopping (highly recommend Instacart! The money I spend on tips is way less than if I go to the store myself and pick an extra 50+ dollars worth of groceries up that I didn’t need)

    • Laundry & Folding

    • Childcare

    • House cleaning

    • Meal prep services

    • Meal delivery (DoorDash, GrubHub, etc)

    • Landscaping/yard work

    • Ordering recurrent household goods

    • Automatic bill pay

Some final thoughts:

  • If you’re NOT currently in a relationship, find someone who is looking for a partner. Find someone who is willing to the do the work at home. Find someone who will push you to keep growing, chasing and achieving your goals.

  • If you are in a relationship, it’s not too late to adjust. Our household is constantly adjusting. Kids grow. Our needs change. You can still adjust.

  • Encourage your partner to take paternity leave if he has it available. This will benefit your sanity as a new mom. It will benefit your child. It will benefit your household. And it will benefit our society moving forward. One of the most reassuring things I’ve seen in the last few years is my male physician colleagues taking a month or two months of family leave to be involved in raising their child from day one. It is so refreshing.

  • Probably the MOST influential book chapter I have ever read is Sheryl Sandberg’s chapter 8 in her book Lean In - Make Your Partner a Real Partner. I will share a few quotes from her book that inspire me.

“I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is. I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully - and I mean fully - supportive of her career. No exceptions. And contrary to the population notion that only unmarried women can make it to the top, the majority of the most successful female business leaders have PARTNERS.”

“We need more men to sit at the table…

the kitchen table.”

- Sheryl Sandberg


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