Commentary: Return-to-office mandates pit spouse against spouse
Men took on more household responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, but return-to-office mandates risk undercutting that progress, says Sarah Green Carmichael for Bloomberg Opinion.
BOSTON: The return-to-office tug of war is playing out not only between bosses and employees but between spouses. Corporate insistence that workers show up at the office sets up a conflict between two-career couples at home.
Many households established new routines during the work-from-home era that allowed them to divvy up responsibilities - grocery shopping, laundry, waiting for the electrician - more equitably than in the past. And the earlier, voluntary stages of the return-to-office push allowed couples leeway to decide who would commute on which days.
But as executives demand more days in the office and set stricter team schedules, the ebbing of flexibility is creating a mounting sense of alarm that the future will look an awful lot like the past, when women sacrificed their careers to make time for their higher share of household labour.
A strong return-to-office push is likely to blunt the gains of the last two years - when US women reached new highs in labour force participation and men a new level of unpaid household work. It was nowhere near equality, but we were heading in the right direction.
THE THIRD PARTY IN THE RELATIONSHIP
Backsliding isn’t inevitable if employers remain open to hybrid schedules. A 2018 study looked at research from 45 countries and found that employer support was the single most important factor in mitigating work-life conflict.
Because spouses aren’t just negotiating between themselves, of course. A third party is influencing the debate: Employers, who have the power to grant (or deny) employees’ requests for flexibility. And historical data shows they are less likely to approve requests from men.
A 2016 analysis from Bain & Company in Australia found that men’s applications for flexible work arrangements were twice as likely to be rejected as women’s. (Other data shows a similar disparity in the United Kingdom.) Although such arrangements increased women’s job satisfaction, they seemed to have the opposite effect on men, who said they had been stigmatised by upper management.
One manager actually said it out loud to a man who had asked about going part-time: “Part-time is traditionally only something we make work for women.”
Men are more likely to be punished for explicitly seeking work-life balance because of an outdated assumption about the division of household labour: That a married woman will cut back at work and that a man (regardless of marital status) will always be on call.
Bain’s study jibes with earlier academic research in the US that found that men pay a higher penalty than women for seeking flexible work arrangements. This is particularly true when men explain that the reason for their request is to take on traditionally female tasks, like caring for children. Perhaps sensing this, men are less likely to ask.
A 2015 study found that male consultants were criticised for taking even a two-week parental leave; men at the same firm who took three-week vacations weren’t. And men who were sneaky about seeking work-family balance - by, say, carefully arranging their phone calls to appear busy all day when in reality they were with their kids - faced no repercussions.
Perhaps that’s why men were much more likely to ask for forgiveness rather than permission for working flexibly.
HARDER TO FIND BALANCE NOW
But today, tightening office presence requirements will make it much harder to find balance through under-the-radar schedule chicanery. Companies have started tracking badge swipes, keyboard strokes and computer idle time.
And about a third of companies are calling hybrid workers into the office on specific days. Employers that are willing to make exceptions are asking workers to submit formal applications - a route women have been more willing to take than men in decades past.
And now, women are slower to return than men, with 41 per cent saying that they worked from home at least some of the time in 2022, down just half a percentage point from the year before. Over the same period, men’s work-from-home rate dropped 7 percentage points to 28 per cent.
The cause is presumed to be that women prefer working from home because it allows them to juggle work and life; but it could also be evidence that employers are less willing to grant men flexibility and that men are more hesitant to ask for it.
Such employer attitudes foster inequities at home that can lead to simmering resentments.
The evidence shows that most couples engage in a little bit of self-deception about the balance of labour in their relationships. In surveys of two-career heterosexual couples, women are more likely to say that each partner’s career is equally important, while men are more likely to say their own career gets priority.
Economic data suggests the men are right. But men are much less clear-eyed when it comes to household labour; there, it’s men who express egalitarian ideals but consistently overestimate their contribution to housework.
What this says to me is that couples today want to share the load equally - women to be equal partners in earning and men to be equal partners at home. But something gets in the way. A big part of that “something” is employer attitudes and policies.