The Perfect Work-Life Balance, Does it Exist? | HBA

The Perfect Work-Life Balance, Does it Exist?

Hello and welcome to the second article of our mini-series. In this piece we will be discussing what managing work-life balance actually means to our members, we will touch upon progress and highlight what remains to be done.

We asked two members about how they share responsibilities in the home and how this might differ from previous generations. Both said improvements have been made thanks to the steps that other women had taken. Both members have husbands that were happy to be hands-on with childcare and housework, which allowed them to be successful in their jobs. The husband of one interviewee took on childcare initially for 6 months but, in reality, 10 years later he is still doing it. The other interviewee and her husband share responsibilities, with both travelling for work but also cooking meals. When the kids were smaller, they ran their lives as a military operation, working as a team. While 10-15 years ago it might have been common for other husbands not to change nappies or empty the dishwasher this is not the case anymore, with young fathers taking on their fair share of baby duties. 

When asked what the key learning was, both said communication: communication within the household, understanding what is important and needs to be done, but also what needs to be improved. It is also important to form support bubbles; one of the interviewee’s husbands formed a network with other men in the same situation. This might not have been very common 30 years ago, but it is now. In fact, the other day, when in the park, I myself came across a group of eight men with their babies. Would our grandparents have imagined this becoming the norm?

So, perhaps unsurprisingly in theory (though often harder to achieve in practice), communication with your partner and an immediate support bubble seems to be a key factor for a good work-life balance. Being able to communicate effectively is important, not only for romantic relationships but also for social and professional ones. Furthermore, as a ‘good’ work-life balance is constantly changing, it is important to be able to adapt to these changes. Sometimes you might think you have it right and the next day what you thought was a good balance doesn’t work for you anymore. This is often the case when kids come into the picture and re-evaluation of compromises is needed. As the definition of success and a good work-life balance differs from person to person, it is important to remember to not compare ourselves to others: everyone is different and it is necessary for one’s work-life balance to fit their own needs and not anyone else’s. 

Unfortunately, the progress that has been made over the past decades regarding women’s rights and gender equality could be undone by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has also thrown a spanner in many people’s work-life balance ideals due to increased childcare and home-schooling. A Catalyst run survey found that although 70 percent of working people believe workplaces will accelerate gender equality in the wake of the pandemic, there are several areas where COVID-19 could be having a detrimental impact. For example, analysis on domestic gender roles at home during the pandemic found that despite 33 percent of men claiming they have taken on more of the household chores, only 13 percent of women say that their male partners have actually taken on more of these duties. Additionally, results showed that women are twice as likely as men to be primarily responsible for home-schooling their kids. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) ran a similar study which had analogous conclusions. 

One of our interviewees pointed out another survey carried out by University College London which concluded that women were spending more than double the amount of time on home-schooling compared to their counterparts. Additionally, within academia and specifically science, the number of peer reviewed publications written by women (but may I also add single fathers) has drastically decreased for the same reason. Because of these concerns, in April 2020, the UN Secretary General urged governments to put women and girls at the centre of their recovery efforts. In contrast to these findings, some articles have suggested that some implications of the pandemic may in fact improve gender equality and allow societies to move closer to gender parity. 

An article from the Guardian found that during the pandemic couples are more likely to share the care of young children; this has improved from 41 percent to 52 percent. Similarly, house chores sharing jumped from 26 percent to 41 percent. Indeed, the author implies that whilst some people suggest the pandemic is having a negative impact on feminist ideologies, it could instead be an opportunity for progress towards gender equality. Despite this improvement, the data still indicates that in about 50 percent of the cases, it’s still the women doing most of the childcare and household chores.

Earlier this year, the HBA ran a survey asking its members whether COVID-19 was having a detrimental effect on gender parity. It found that 88 percent of members that work for corporate partners thought that their employers had gone the extra mile in making sure they were supported. However, 47 percent of the members felt that longer term the pandemic was going to have an impact on their ability to work and their career progression due to home-schooling and caring for elderly parents. Like the mixed messages from surveys by BCG and other organisations previously mentioned it may not become apparent what the long-term effects of the crisis have been on society until it is over and we see what changes stick in our ‘new normal’. 

Both of our article interviewees said that, whilst COVID could set gender parity back by half a century if nothing is done to mitigate the downsides, there are positives that have come out of it, one of them being that the virtual and flexible working model is indeed working. Online work environments have allowed women to attend meetings they might not have been able to attend before because of other family commitments, allowing them to work flexibly around other obligations. Moreover, a number of big pharma companies, such as Novartis to name one, have now shifted their working model to allow employees to decide the best way for them to work – this could drastically improve the playing field going forwards. 

We also spoke to two young professionals about whether they felt that there was less gender inequality in their household and that of their peers than they had witnessed growing up; they both agreed that this was the case. The stigma around the traditional and stereotypical notion of a man, such as that men should be going out more and spending more time at work is being challenged. Furthermore, there is now a bigger expectation of fathers to be involved in childcare and household chores. Having said that, when looking at the future, various important areas requiring further effort to achieve improved gender equality were identified by the young professionals. 

One of the most important topics believed to aid this progress, especially within a household, is the ability for flexible working hours so that parents can organize their personal life around work expectations. Let’s see if this can be accelerated by the pandemic. Additionally, they believe that government and employers can do more to aid the consolidation of a network around family and family life, as well as removing microaggressions both inside and outside the workplace Unfortunately, to date, whilst the more glaringly obvious gender stereotyping is receding, more subtle but significant aspects holding both men and women back from achieving their home and work aspirations are still not being taken seriously.

To conclude, although society and our HBA members think that gender equality has certainly improved within many households, more needs to be done to reduce gender biases and to make sure that every father gets a chance to be more involved in parenthood and every mother gets a chance to excel in her career. Do you think household chores and childcare is shared equally in your household? Send us your opinion, watch the interviews, and join us in discussing gender and behavioural influence in the workplace in our next article.