Supporting Dual Career Couples in the Age of COVID-19
Globally, the number of dual career couples — defined as “couples (with or without children) where both partners pursue a professional career” — has significantly increased. Generation by generation, more people are stepping away from the traditional “breadwinner” lifestyle as 78% of Millennials, 73% of Generation X, and 47% of Boomers in the US identify as being in a dual career couple. However, with this change comes a new set of challenges. Described in Supporting Dual Career Couples: An Equity Fluent Leadership Playbook by the Center for Gender, Equity, and Leadership (EGAL):
“While partners are becoming more egalitarian, women in heterosexual dual career couples…still do most of the household/care work and are more willing to prioritize their partner’s career over their own. On top of this, workplaces have been built on a breadwinner format that makes ‘having it all’ a myth for the vast majority of women, in particular. Furthermore, all individuals in dual career couples may experience stress, conflict and time constraints resulting from managing both work and life/family responsibilities, which can be exacerbated by jobs that require travel, temporary relocation and/or permanent relocation. Employees in dual career couples are not a homogenous group so it is key to understand challenges and inclusive solutions for employees of different identities — including gender, sexual orientation, disability status, race, ethnicity and socio-economic status.”
With the unprecedented challenges COVID-19 presents, dual career couples (particularly women) face heightened difficulties. In a recent webinar hosted by EGAL and 100 Women in Finance, Genevieve Smith, Associate Director of EGAL, outlined the impacts of COVID-19 on dual career couples and actions that business leaders and managers can take to support dual career couples, building on EGAL’s work and original playbook.
In just April 2020, women accounted for 55% of the 20.1 million jobs that were lost, with an unemployment rate of 16.2% in comparison to the 13.5% rate for men. When dissecting the data even further, Black women’s unemployment rate reached 16.4% and Latina women’s reached 20.2%, showcasing the disproportionate impact on women of color. For those who are still employed, coupled women are doing less paid work than men despite being in the same circumstances. As women do 70% of the child care during the work day, they are disproportionately impacted by the burdens of housework and caregiving that have significantly increased. For women of color and single mothers, this impact is even more drastic. Due to the increased imbrication of professional life and household complications, women experience more severe anxiety and burnout relative to their male counterparts.
For employers, this results in productivity and performance challenges, concerns for representation and advancement for women, and loss of diversity gains. In order to support dual career couples through this tough time, EGAL has identified ten actions employers can take. The first five actions are focused on how Equity Fluent Leaders — defined as leaders who understand the value of different lived experiences and use their power to address barriers, increase access, and drive change for positive impact — can take action now. The latter five practices are focused on how managers can improve their equity fluency.
The June 17, 2020 webinar and fireside chat addressed the aforementioned challenges with Smita Pillai (the VP, Global Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Zendesk), Brian Gross (the North America Chief of Staff and West Coast Business Management Senior Director for the Boston Consulting Group), Subha Rajana (a technology entrepreneur, speaker, social impact investor, and CEO of Biarca), and Kellie McElhaney (the Founding Director of EGAL and Professor at Berkeley Haas). Over the course of 40 minutes, panelists shared their perspectives on the impacts of COVID-19 on dual career couples and what actions their companies are taking in order to address the situation. Here are three major takeaways from from the discussion.
Mental health is extremely important. Now that it is being discussed more openly, companies can take the initiative to help de-stigmatize it. When the COVID-19 pandemic passes, avenues to support mental health should still be provided so employees continue to have more resources.
At BCG, Brian highlighted that many employees are opening up about mental health, and as a result the company is able to take the initiative to help its workers. For example, before COVID-19 the company had already supported employees using meditation apps, but now they actively engage empathetically with their employees, increasing workforce flexibility, sharing techniques to create a better work-life balance, clearing out Friday afternoon workloads, and more.
Smita followed up with the fact that at Zendesk, they have introduced a new modern health app, giving employees free assessments and consulting. When it comes to work hours, they have introduced flexible hours, removed weekly meetings on Wednesdays, and promoted taking time off for mental breaks. They are consistently checking in with employees through a newly created pulse survey to make sure stress levels are at a minimum and employees are healthy.
At Biarca, in addition to accommodating work schedules and providing mental health support like BCG and Zendesk, Subha mentioned that they are offering paid meals and introducing at home practices employees can try to help reduce stress and tension.
Implementing policies and maintaining them beyond COVID-19, these companies aim to help all employees, especially dual career couples. When both partners are juggling their professional career and maintaining their household, mental health is crucial as there are a plethora of things on both individual’s plates. During this time with COVID-19, having support from the workplace will lessen stress significantly and allow dual career couples to more efficiently manage their work and life balance.
Awareness surrounding different privileges that exist is heightened during COVID-19, so companies are learning how to take better care of the unique needs of different employees.
All three panelists agreed that company cultures have shifted in a more empathetic and understanding direction. They understand that it is a privilege for people to be able to relocate their workspace into their home, have remote jobs, and maintain stability. Not everyone is in the same situation and able to make a smooth transition. The companies have tried their best not to lay off any employees, take care of employee finances, create new remote roles, and even create an opt-in option for those who cannot work at home so that they can come into a location and work in a space they feel comfortable in. It is still difficult creating roles for those who have on-site only jobs, however they are doing their best to retain all workers while providing the unique support needed.
For dual career couples, company awareness of the reality that both individuals in the relationship are showing up in the workplace and at home will create empathy and promote personal growth for couples as they know their workplace is understanding of their situation and doing their best to accommodate them. The first step in making one feel safe, comfortable, and happy is understanding one’s situation. Now that companies have acknowledged and are taking an active role in supporting their diverse employees, people like dual career couples will be able to express their needs and perform better.
Lastly, A tip for working at home is to lean in and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
The biggest tip the speakers recommended is to not be afraid to reach out for help during this time of need. Many employees may feel the need to take on everything without realizing that their company will support them. This causes unnecessary pressure and stress which is detrimental, not only to said employees but to the companies as well. Whether it be work related or family related issues, it is important that everyone gets through this together. Reaching out for help and stating your needs will help others help you.
COVID-19 has impacted everyone significantly. When parsing out the data and looking at dual career couples in particular, women are experiencing increased pressure and anxiety along with many other challenges due to changes in work and home life balance. Being aware of these challenges, companies are taking action to help mitigate problems employees are facing. I hope these actions will extend beyond COVID-19 and become the norm as companies are now aware of the struggles and circumstances different employees face. COVID-19 has spotlighted these challenges for companies, however, at the end of the day many of them already existed and it is up to companies to take actions to help their employees. Understanding is not enough. Companies such as Boston Consulting Group, Zendesk, and Biarca are stepping up to the plate and making changes to advocate for further equity. Being able to sustain a more empathetic work culture, while promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion, will not only benefit employees but increase overall work performance and efficiency.