How does COVID affect gender dynamics at home? This researcher is finding out.
Alyson Byrne is seeing inequality and challenges — but also opportunities for progress.
By Hailey Eisen
(Photo Credit: Rich Blenkinsopp/Memorial University)
There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the way we work—from massive layoffs to millions suddenly working from home. When the pandemic hit, many also faced the pressure of added responsibilities in the home and beyond. Early research into the way we work during COVID has unveiled notable gender discrepancies in the balance of responsibility and burden of care.
“It’s been a fascinating time to look at gender roles in the home and workplace,” says Dr. Alyson Byrne, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld. “Despite the terrible and tragic things going on—and we must not make light of these—this pandemic has exposed cracks in the foundation in terms of gender and the burden of child care, elder care, and domestic care.”
According to Alyson, whose research has focused primarily on leadership, status, gender and relational outcomes, anecdotal evidence gathered during this time reveals an imbalance in women’s roles and responsibilities. “With the burden of care falling more on women, who are often simultaneously working full time, there will be potential long-term impacts of this time period which I’m not sure will disappear quickly, even with a vaccine.”
With that in mind, Alyson has begun a research project with her mentor and former academic supervisor, Professor Julian Barling of Smith School of Business. Alyson and Julian published a paper in 2017 in the journal Organization Science about the impact women’s high-status careers have on their marriage and family lives. Their new research will focus on couples in a different context.
“For the time being, we are taking a snapshot of couples, trying to capture the dynamic of life as it is now during the pandemic,” Alyson explains. “We will plan to study the same couples during two more time periods: when regulations are lifted and again when the pandemic is over.” The research will focus on the roles of each partner, how COVID impacted work and the family interface, and what changes, if any, were long-lasting. “We don’t have clearly defined ideas yet as to what we’ll find, but we do have some ideas.”
Working from her home and sharing responsibilities for their two small children with her accountant husband, Alyson says she doesn’t usually incorporate her personal experience into her research, but it’s hard not to see the connection in this case. “We’ve always been egalitarian parents,” she says. “We each took six months of parental leave for both of our babies, and continue to negotiate all aspects of domestic life, including who makes dinner, who gets up in the night with the kids, cleans up, etcetera.”
While it’s been a challenge to manage child-care responsibilities while working from home, and many women seem to be facing an increasing burden of responsibility — it hasn’t all been negative. The pandemic may also have a few outcomes that improve couples’ work and relationship dynamics, according to Alyson’s early observations.
For one, the pandemic has blurred the divide between work and home. “Suddenly your boss has his kids popping up on a Zoom call, and it’s completely OK,” Alyson says. “When you see others going through the same thing you are, you don’t feel so bad.”
The pandemic has also increased the amount of time that families spend together. “Even if it’s not quality family time, there has been a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’, which is really nice.”
It has also provided an unprecedented opportunity to see what each partner’s work really looks like. In fact, the pandemic has forced many couples to have important conversations about their careers, about who gets to work when, who gets the home office, if there is one, and who is responsible for groceries and the kids’ online learning, among other things. “It may lead to increased respect and a greater understanding of the types of demands each partner faces.”
Alyson’s own upbringing was decidedly egalitarian. Her parents, both teachers, had no difference in the status of their jobs, and she was “raised to believe it was normal for women to want to work, and be expected to work.” But after a few years in her first job out of university — a role with Export and Development Canada in Ottawa — she realized she wanted to study work and teach about work, rather than be in the workplace.
Alyson reached out to a professor from her undergraduate studies, a PhD graduate from Smith, who connected her with Julian. “While I knew little about academic research, I had passion and questions I wanted to explore, and Julian decided to take a chance on me,” Alyson recalls.
“When we first met, I didn’t know about his credentials or the level of publications he had accumulated over his career, only that he was a nice guy who was willing to meet with me and let me explore the MSc/PhD program at Smith.”
Looking back, Alyson sees Julian as her greatest champion, and his lab group formed an incredible network that was instrumental in her success. “The people in our lab group became collaborators and best friends, and over the years we have celebrated our publications, weddings, and the births of our children together.”
While at Smith, Alyson says the support staff was also instrumental in ensuring she secured funding, got participants for her studies, submitted ethics, and was supported throughout the duration of her PhD. While she certainly struggled with imposter syndrome at times, wondering if she would get published (she did, many times) or if she would get a job (she did, her dream job in fact), she found the entire experience to be overwhelmingly positive.
Having been interested in leadership since she was young, Alyson began her research in this field. “I was one of those young, extroverted children who took on leadership roles from student council to sports teams,” she says. “And when I started in the workplace, I was fascinated by the impact various leaders could have on my own motivation based on their behaviours.”
Her work with Julian began by focusing on the small attributes of leaders, such as humour, and their impacts on employee outcomes, and then shifted to women’s careers and when women are the higher-earning partner in the family. The changes she’s studying now around COVID and couples’ work dynamics may, she hopes, lead to some bigger shifts in corporate culture, especially around family-friendly policies, the ideal scenario being true equality in the workplace that spills over into the family.
“Wouldn’t that be a silver lining?” she says. “If more men came to respect the roles of their wives, to see more clearly the heavy lifting that’s being done on the home front every day that they weren’t aware of before? Truthfully, if this doesn’t transform the way we think about gender and work, I don’t know what will.”