Keeping the Fairness Mission at Home on Track During a Pandemic

BLLx Happy Hour Takeaways
Blog Post
Oct. 29, 2020

On October 21st, the Better Life Lab Experiments (BLLx) team held a virtual Gender Equality Starts at Home Happy Hour. The pressing question that brought everyone together: How do we keep the mission for a fair division of household labor on track during a pandemic?

Seven months in, the pandemic is weighing heavily on households. Homes have become makeshift offices for some. Essential workers worry about bringing infection back home. Classrooms have gone remote or hybrid. Child care centers are closed. Households have added masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer to the list of household to-do’s. Households and families of all shapes and sizes are feeling the stress, anxiety, and ever-shifting responsibilities, sometimes feeling they have no choice but to put the mission to more fairly share the load of care and housework on the back-burner. And women, research shows, not surprisingly, are bearing the brunt of the work.

But of course, sharing the work at home is as critical as ever, especially as recent jobs numbers show a major exit of women from the workforce. We know we need big policy changes, changes to our work culture and gendered expectations. But that may take awhile. What can help right now? How can households make gender equity at home a priority during the pandemic, and how can our team at BLLx give them the tools to do that? We came together to brainstorm the challenges and solutions.

Our Happy Hour guests included gender equality experts from around the country and members of our BLLx beta tester community. We gained insight from experts including Eve Rodsky, author of Fair Play, Dadventures co-founder Stephen Dypiangco, and Better Life Lab’s Jahdziah St. Julien, who has been applying the BLLx approach to her household of roommates during the pandemic. The lively discussion raised key insights, sticking points, and central challenges, as the team at BLL works to design resources that really work for families in our current moment and beyond.

Here are the key insights our team took away from the discussion that we are holding onto as we head back to the Lab to design more experiments to help families out of their ruts:

Key Insights

  • Value your own time. As Eve Rodsky says, we tend to see women’s time as abundant (like sand) and guard men’s time as finite (like diamonds). Begin to notice when you are devaluing your own time or safeguarding your partner’s or household member’s time more than your own. All household members should be committing time to household labor and everyone deserves time for rest and play. To get the fairness mission on track, the household needs to acknowledge that all time has equal value.
  • Approach the fairness conversation like housemates. This creates an opportunity to detach from the well-worn gender and family scripts we all carry around, and approach the conversation as household members on an equal playing field. When you start with this approach, there’s no assumption that a certain person should make beds, do dishes, rake leaves, etc. just because “they’re mom,” because they’ve always done it in the past, or they grew up thinking it was their job. As BLL’s Jahdziah St. Julien shared, when the pandemic hit, it became crucial for her and her housemates to communicate their needs and expectations to make sure the household ran smoothly and fairly in the midst of chaos. Once they got on the same page, they created a task-sharing system, complete with a chore chart and household check-ins. Remember, each person has an equal responsibility to carry the household load and an equal right to rest and play. Think of yourselves as housemates because you are. Then, make a plan to share the load fairly. Our Choreganizer experiment may be a good place to start.
  • Think long-term. Eve Rodsky reminded us that if we invest in household fairness now, it will pay off in spades in the future. Investing in fairness means putting in the time and energy and navigating discomfort to create fair systems and healthy communication patterns in your household. Better Life Lab’s Policy Analyst Roselyn Miller shared that after attending the BLLx Happy Hour, she and her partner were inspired to communicate more about task-sharing and start challenging the mindset that “it’s going to take me longer to teach you than to do it myself”. “It reminded me,” Roselyn said, “that being able to teach and let go is a skill set too.”

Sticking Points

  • The human gets lost in the shuffle. A few folks shared that as the pandemic drags on, they feel like their household is just going through the motions– just moving from one task to the next. When we’re stuck in survival mode, we can easily overlook imbalances in housework and carework. We can also forget to take care of ourselves and each other. As Eve Rodsky said during our Happy Hour, right now, many households are “investing in toilet paper more than we’re investing in our relationships.” To get back on track, we need to reconnect to our humanity and each other. As a first step, check out our latest BLLx experiment, Ritual of Connection. Similarly, Eve recommends a 10-minute nightly check-in conversation with your partner or entire household to “humanize your daily experience.”
  • Falling into old patterns. A few attendees shared that as the COVID-19 pandemic threw their household routine out of whack, they and their partners fell into old habits. Progress toward household equality back-slid as folks just tried to get by day-to-day with upended work and school schedules. Falling into old, unequal patterns is a risk especially when you and your partner come to the relationship with different gender expectations. Several beta testers mentioned they were in a long-term process of unlearning the “roles we inherited from our caretakers” and striving to create new, healthier patterns in their own relationships. But the pandemic has knocked these goals off course as households just try to get by. Talk about these old roles when you notice them, so old scripts can’t replace deliberate decision-making about how the labor is being shared and what kind of family experience the household is actually trying to create.
  • Buy-in. You’re in; you understand the value of sharing the household work fairly. But how do you get your household members-- partner, kids, housemates-- on board? Or better yet, take charge of efforts to share the load? During our Happy Hour, some beta testers admitted that while they’re on board, their partners or household members may not see the value of sharing the load more fairly. For some, husbands don’t share the commitment to gender equity at home and may perceive BLLx as more work, or perhaps as a tool “for women only.” Stephen Dypiangco, a father of three who’s been working to share the care and housework fairly with his wife, recommended BLLx experiments appeal to self-interest– especially men’s. How can we align all our household members’ self-interest with the goal of household fairness? Dypiangco suggests that one place to start is self-care. We all want and deserve time for self-care and rest, especially during this pandemic. A discussion about how to make sure each partner or household member gets time for self-care may be a good place to start to get buy-in.

Central Challenges

Our Gender Equality Starts at Home Happy Hour participants also helped us think through some of the central challenges of designing solutions to the division of labor at home:

  • Paradox: Creating more work instead of less? One ongoing struggle for our BLLx project is that the people who are most interested in implementing our experiments in their homes are the same ones who are doing most of their household’s labor. Our goal is to create less work for overburdened household members (likely women and moms) and distribute the load more fairly. We don’t want to saddle them with yet another job as “BLLx Experiment Supervisor.” So how do we make it a whole family/household project? Last year, we tackled this tricky subject on our blog. We focused on identifying motivations for experimenting, taking others’ perspectives, and the importance of acknowledgement and appreciation. Still, the risk remains that BLLx becomes one more task that the most burnt-out household member takes on. How can we best address this potential paradox and make sure household members work together toward fairness?

Building a Supportive Community

The BLLx team wants to create an active, supportive community for beta testers. Research shows that peer support encourages behavior and habit changes and helps us stick with them. In what ways would our beta testers like to connect with each other? What platforms will make active engagement possible, easy, and most helpful? We’re seeking input from beta testers as we build a supportive community of families and partners committed to fairness at home and helping each other achieve it. Please join us, share your thoughts, and ask for feedback from other BLLx beta testers in our growing BLLx Facebook group.

Related Topics
Gender Equity