Tackling the mental load and its impact on gender equality at home and work

Tackling the mental load and its impact on gender equality at home and work

In a climate where working fathers are changing their expectations about how involved they want to be as parents and women have become more involved and successful in their own careers, why are gendered roles around who takes on the domestic burden of home and children still so entrenched and incompatible with modern family life?

Stereotypes reinforced at all levels

Part of the explanation is that traditional roles are deeply entrenched at multiple levels across society, within organisations and by individuals, making it practically, financially and emotionally difficult for people to break out of the father as primary breadwinner and mother as primary home manager norm.


The way parental leave is organised in Australia (and most other countries) means that men have very little time off with their new born children, often being asked as they stagger back exhausted after two weeks parental leave whether they ‘enjoyed their holiday’. The result is that men are expected to pick up where they left off as though nothing has changed. Women then default to assuming the care giver role.  These roles once established are hard to break and what started out as practical ways of organising home life, because a mother is on maternity leave, quickly become the established pattern.

In countries such as Sweden that have a use it or lose it ‘men’s quota’ of parental leave, the roles become less entrenched because both parents are able to share in the early stages of parenthood that then go on to drive behaviours in the long term. Where men have the opportunity to spend some time as the primary care giver there is greater appreciation of what the role involves. Women conversely are more able to return to work and re-establish their careers without the dual hit of getting to grips with often complicated child care arrangements and the adjustment of being a working parent at the same time.


Flexible work is a massive contributor to creating equality of opportunity at work and equality of roles at home, yet for too many organisations it is still largely considered a ‘favour’ that is given to working mums.  A report by Timewise in the UK showed that while 87 per cent of employees would like to work flexibly only 10 per cent of roles are actively advertised with flexibility built in. This shows that for employees the desire to work flexibly is mainstream and has long moved from being a niche concern for working mums, yet work is still not being designed with flexibility in mind. Where organisations embrace a flexible culture, it allows both parents to play active roles at home and at work. Where they don’t, it further entrenches gender stereotypes about who the ‘home manager’ is and therefore who will carry the mental load.

The net result is that more women than men tend to work flexibly or part-time, which often places them in a career slow lane with fewer promotions and opportunities to work on interesting projects. Fathers see this impact on women’s careers and it hardly acts as an incentive for them to ask for more flexibility in their role.

The economic loss to business of either losing skilled employees entirely or not enabling them to fully reach their potential by this inflexible approach is increasingly understood, as are the benefits to employee morale and motivation of a flexible culture. Yet many businesses are slow to change and all the while that organisations don’t encourage or role model a culture of flexibility for all, families will continue to be left having to make stark choices about who sacrifices career and who sacrifices time with the kids.


Individuals tend to carry the burden of societal expectations and the judgement of others, which leads many women to default to the role of home manager.  Expectations about motherhood still loom large in our psyche creating the perfect storm, where because of the way parental leave and flexible work tend to be organised, mothers pick up more of the slack at home and either consciously or unconsciously also believe that it is their responsibility to do so.

Conversely, because women tend to take over the thinking around the unpaid domestic and child care role, fathers tend to adopt the role of willing assistant, operating from a list of instructions rather than taking equal responsibility for thinking about and making decisions about what needs to be done.

Time and time again in How Do You Do Its’ parental coaching sessions we hear of frustration among mothers who feel the burden of being the default for unpaid work, organising all aspects of their family lives. Fathers, on the other hand, tell us they feel excluded and that any contribution they make is likely to be criticised for not being ‘right’, when what it actually is, is just not the way their partner would have done something.

At an individual level we tend to reinforce outdated models of behaviour which are at odds with how we behaved prior to having children. Is it any wonder that this causes friction and stress between couples, as previously equally balanced lives and careers become increasingly divided along gender lines?

What is the impact of the division of roles?

The impact of these gendered roles is multi-faceted;

If the burden of the mental load falls to women, then it either becomes impossible or too exhausting to bring the best of themselves to work. And as employers tend to be more open to flexible working requests from women than men, the path of least resistance tends to be that women step back in their careers or adjust their hours to accommodate increased responsibilities at home. This alters their career trajectory and tends to increase the responsibility men have for the economic stability of the family.  From an organisational perspective women’s career progression can be impacted, so companies are not benefitting from the diversity and associated business performance which research shows happens when more women are in leadership positions.

Men want a more active role in parenting, yet if their partners feel unable to work full time then they feel the economic burden, and this impacts their ability or confidence to try and negotiate the kind of flexible working arrangement that would enable them to take a greater responsibility for life at home. Therefore, over time the roles become more ingrained as men and women follow different career paths and roles at home become defined along gender lines.

As our courses show, the current division of the mental load causes frustration for mothers and fathers, increasing stress at home which tends to spill over and have an impact at work. We’ve moved a long way from the 1950s’ version of family life, yet in terms of who is still carrying the mental load there is a disconnect and perhaps we currently have more in common with previous generations than we’d really like to admit.

How do individuals attempt to address the balance?

Underlying factors such as shared parental leave and the way flexible working is viewed are changing and will undoubtedly go a long way to help, but individuals have limited ability to impact these in the short term. However, there is a lot that can be done at the individual level to enable families to get smarter with how they plan the division of unpaid work.

On How Do You Do Its’ coaching programmes, we work with parents, both mums and dads who hold senior roles at work, many of which involve advanced project management skills and the ability to delegate, manage and allocate resources. Yet when we talk to them about how they plan the work that needs to get done at home it is usually ad hoc.  Little consideration is given to who is best placed to do what and often there are huge assumptions about who is responsible for something.

Once families start to bring in some of the skills they use naturally at work to the division of labour at home we see a rapid transformation in communication between partners, reduced stress levels and a greater appreciation of what is involved. The key is to consciously address and make decisions about who is going to do what in a way that will work for you, your partner and your organisation. There is no one size fits all approach and this topic needs to be discussed and negotiated for clarity and to reduce tensions and assumptions.

How to get started

  1. Copy what you would do when allocating responsibilities at work by writing a home and children job description where you list of all the unpaid work that needs to be done- it might surprise you how long that list is!
  2. Allocate the jobs – again as you would at work, by thinking about your strengths, your preferences and your capacity and select who does what based on what makes sense using these criteria
  3. Be clear about who is doing what and if there is something that neither of you can stomach then investigate if it can be outsourced (and that you are comfortable paying for this). If you can’t agree, share it!
  4. If one person owns a job, let them do it in their way so they also own the thinking about it too and aren’t just being delegated to.
  5. Keep communicating, things change, and you may need to adjust who does what to consider: promotions at work, changes in childcare e.g. kids starting school or just because there is one aspect that it becomes clear still isn’t working very well.
  6. Work out what ‘good enough’ looks like for your family, for everyone it will be different and don’t allow external judgements about ‘perfect’ put you off what is right for you and your partner.
  7. If you are in the position of not yet being parents, then actively have the discussions now. For most people this is something that happens in retrospect once it is clear the balance isn’t working, yet if you have the luxury of being able to plan and anticipate then do!

By actively managing the balance between paid and unpaid work couples can go a long way to stop the drift towards traditional gender roles and their impact on the career progression of women and the ability of men to be fully involved in the unpaid life of having a family. And we can create more than one version of what good looks like, so that parents feel the flexibility to design a path that works for them, their career, family and organisation.

More: www.howdoyoudoit.com

Twitter: @howdoyoudoitorg