Resource organization, decision-making, risk control, accounting, logistics and operations, sustainability, communication, stakeholder relations…As an executive, you’re certainly very used to dealing with all these issues every day at the office. But it’s also very likely that, at home, those same responsibilities mostly fall to a woman. This is what is known as mental load, or the effort of having to think about everything that needs to be done, work that is often both invisible and undervalued.
According to a 2019 survey conducted by P&G in Spain, three in every four women bear the burden of mental load. Furthermore, 63% of mothers claim to have an infinite mental to-do list, compared to 25% of fathers. Eighty-seven percent of mothers are primarily responsible for everything running smoothly at home, and 69% say their partners chip in, but only when asked to.
Another study, published in the American Sociological Review in 2019, identified four clear stages of mental work that fall directly on women: anticipating needs, identifying options, deciding among the options and monitoring the results.
Mental load: A powerful brake on women’s professional careers
According to experts, although there is no biological trait that leads women to exercise the role of planners and organizers better than men, cultural biases perpetuate mothers in the role of CEO at home.
In addition to affecting their well-being, the fact that women are assuming the bulk of the domestic responsibility has important consequences in their professional careers. On one hand, it becomes much more difficult for women to balance their personal life with an ambitious career: when women are overwhelmed at home, they feel like they can’t take on the demands required to advance their careers. After becoming mothers, 58% of women reduce their working hours, take sabbaticals or directly leave their jobs (compared to 6.2% of men). This obviously causes them to receive fewer promotions and salary raises and widens the pay gap.
Plus, this culture is broadly entrenched in the policies of many companies. Thus, it’s often easier for women to get flexible or part-time jobs, while men’s careers are traditionally more rigid, linear and removed from their personal lives.
Keys to promoting equal opportunities for women and men
To help women and men enjoy the same development opportunities at a company, managers must understand that they constantly juggle the demands of their office and home lives. We propose three measures for you to implement in your organization.
1. Promoting mutual support between team members
Although they may appear to be two completely disconnected worlds, the truth is that our home life affects us at work and the experiences we have at the office have a direct impact at home. According to a recent study by IESE Professor Mireia Las Heras, employees who have the support of their colleagues—for instance, in being able to talk about their difficulties balancing work and family—are more likely to have compassionate and empathetic relationships with their partners. At the same time, that family positivity transfers back to work in a virtuous circle that creates the ideal conditions for greater effectiveness and creativity.
Although this finding is based on friendship and trust between people with similar roles—rather than on corporate policies to support families—,executives have lots of say in the matter. They can help improve the quality of relationships at home by minimizing conflicts between work and family with simple measures like respecting working hours and digital disconnection. They can also create environments that encourage informal support networks among employees, mindful that if workers get along well, everyone will benefit.
2. Encourage more engagement from fathers
Even though fathers in many countries are increasingly committed to their role in the family ecosystem, more support for paternity at the organizational and institutional level is still needed to be able to have a true impact on the professional development of mothers. The latest book co-written by Professor Mireia Las Heras, Engaged Fatherhood for Men, Families and Gender Equality, concludes that when executives support family life, it increases the number of hours men spend with their children much more so than for mothers.
In other words, what leaders do in this area is crucial for allowing fathers to spend more time with their families, helping to create a more inclusive environment. Some initiatives that companies can implement are: establishing work-life balance policies and encouraging workers to follow them; tailoring the professional career of each employee to their personal situation; and facilitating non-transferable paternity leaves, especially in countries where they are unpaid.
3. View the home as a business
Developing a fairer distribution of tasks and management within each family can be complicated, but according to experts, laying the cards on the table is the first step. From there, a useful method can be to organize the home like a company and distribute the leadership of different departments between the two members: food, cleaning, purchases, education, health, maintenance, public relations etc. Thus, for instance, the director of health would have to manage everything related to medical issues for the entire family, from scheduling appointments to administering medicines to keeping the first-aid kit well supplied.
Commitment and communication are obviously essential for this system to work. But the ability to delegate is also key. According to the first study mentioned in this article, only 24% of women completely forget about a domestic task that they have left in the hands of someone else, and 72% admit to always reviewing and critiquing other people’s results. The authors explain this behavior as a lack of trust in one’s partner, but also that some women see having equal responsibilities at home as loss of power: at least they’re the boss at home.
One of the basic pillars that can break this vicious cycle is education. In the business world, executive training is a key tool for women to advance in their careers and aspire to positions of higher responsibility, although it often entails significant time and money spent on themselves. That’s why it’s essential for them to have confidence in their own abilities and the support of their partners. Because the road to equality has many stages, paths and allies.