Supporting employees in the work-life balancing act

Picture a couple. At work, they both hold demanding management-level roles. At home, they have several children. Now imagine how, after a long day of work, the couple divides the burdens of housework and childcare. Our research finds women in opposite-gender dual-career couples (DCCs) are four times more likely than men to take on tasks at home, regardless of who earns more. But for same-gender DCCs, the responsibilities tend to be split more equitably. As one partner in a same-gender couple put it, “Being in a same-sex relationship makes a big difference as to how we approach things.”

Understanding this is critical, as adjusting to having two people working from home has been one of the more persistent challenges of the pandemic. We also know from our extensive research that some 81 percent of women and 63 percent of men are in dual-career couples (DCCs),1Women in the Workplace 2021,” McKinsey, September 27, 2021. where both partners work for reasons ranging from personal and career fulfillment to pure economic necessity.

We found the challenge of achieving work-life balance is often exacerbated by gender stereotypes, which are often avoided by same-gender DCCs. Drawing on qualitative interviews and data collected for Women in the Workplace, a 2021 report published in partnership with LeanIn.Org, we found same-gender DCCs tend to manage household responsibilities using a range of strategies that allow for greater flexibility. These include:

  • doing tasks each partner minds less
  • focusing on natural skills and inclinations to determine responsibilities
  • allocating tasks based on available time and flexibility
  • responding dynamically to changes affecting work and home life

Our research also identified an unmet need for companies to develop strategies to help couples find and achieve work-life balance. A good start? Ensuring working models are flexible and support the needs of a diverse workforce, and that managers are role models in ensuring employees feel able to craft individualized solutions to work-life imbalances.

Understanding the work-life challenge

For DCCs, managing demanding careers alongside personal obligations is hardly a new struggle. But the COVID-19 pandemic has only added to the difficulties. Even prepandemic, working mothers in opposite-gender couples often worked a “double shift,” spending evenings on childcare and household labor following a full day of employment. And when schools and day care options shut down, that double shift became a “double double” shift as they took on the bulk of childcare and homeschooling.2How are working women doing during COVID-19? Our Women in the Workplace study explores,” McKinsey, September 30, 2020. Couples’ ongoing frustrations are exacerbated by a perception gap: while 70 percent of men in opposite-gender DCCs believe they share household duties equally with their partners, only 42 percent of women agree (Exhibit 1).

Same-gender dual-career couples tend to take a more equitable approach to household tasks, and they prioritize each other's careers.

Our research found same-gender DCCs take a more equitable approach to work-life responsibilities. Only 28 percent of women in same-gender DCCs say they do most or all of the housework, compared with more than half of women in opposite-gender DCCs. Same-gender couples report relatively equal prioritization of each other’s career. But in opposite-gender DCCs, women are more than twice as likely as men to prioritize their partner’s career. And individuals in same-gender DCCs are significantly less likely than their peers in opposite-gender couples to consider downshifting their career after having children.

Clearly, some opposite-gender DCCs manage work and home demands equitably, and some same-gender couples do not. Yet in general, our research reveals that same-gender DCCs are more likely to take a balanced approach to household responsibilities. (For more on our methodology, see sidebar, “About the research.”)

To prevent employee burnout and ensure workplace equity, helping couples find a sustainable work-life balance should be a corporate priority. Our research shows that individuals in DCCs who share home responsibilities equally are less likely to feel burned out (Exhibit 2). In addition, one in ten employees in DCCs feel that increased personal demands—such as caring for children or sick relatives—have contributed to their missing out on a raise, promotion, or other advancement. Over time, work-life imbalance may undermine professional confidence, reduce trust in employers, and exacerbate fears about being judged negatively for caregiving responsibilities.

Sharing responsibilities more equally reduces the risk of burnout.

As the pandemic has prompted workers to reassess their work-life tradeoffs, record numbers of workers have quit their jobs or are considering doing so.3‘Great Attrition’ or ‘Great Attraction’? The choice is yours,” McKinsey Quarterly, September 8, 2021. Our research found that 29 percent of people in DCCs have considered taking a job at a different company with a different work culture. Prioritizing employees’ holistic well-being by supporting their efforts to find work-life balance is one way to make clear to them that workplace relationships aren’t merely transactional.

Our research suggests that many same-gender DCCs have upended the notion that career success and managing a household are incompatible. In fact, both partners can prioritize their careers while sharing the responsibilities at home equitably—and reducing gender-based disparities. Lessons from these partnerships will help employees find a sustainable work-life balance and help employers foster a happier and more productive staff.

Learning from same-gender couples

Gender norms manifest in ways both obvious and insidious, from laundry detergent commercials that typically feature women to assumptions people may make about gender based on someone’s job title. But what happens with same-gender couples? Without clear gender norms to fall back on, partners in same-gender DCCs shared that they feel freer to approach household responsibilities fairly and practically. “When we have moments of tension on housework, neither of us has an ‘edge’ because of gender norms,” one interviewee said.

Our interviews surfaced numerous examples of same-gender DCCs deploying strategies to optimize the sharing of household responsibilities. Their strategies came down to comparative advantage—that is, doing whatever makes the most sense:

  • Do tasks you mind less than your partner. One same-gender couple we interviewed—we’ll call them Roger and Brian—allocates tasks based on what each partner likes the least. “I secretly think that Brian doesn’t like to clean,” Roger said. “So I end up doing that more. But I don’t want to have to deal with our taxes, so Brian takes care of that.” Another couple divides tasks based on what each person actually enjoys. One partner buys the groceries because he enjoys the supermarket. “He might even pick up conference calls while walking around the aisles,” his partner said.
  • Divide responsibility by skill or practical considerations. One same-gender DCC we interviewed shared that one partner—we’ll call her Susan—takes care of anything requiring organizational skills. “If you ask anyone who knows Susan, they’ll agree she’s the most organized person in the world,” her partner said. “If I was with any other person, I might be doing the planning and finance. But with Susan, she runs the household.” For another couple, practicality dictates the division of labor: one partner has a chronic back injury, so the other takes the lead on any physically demanding activities.
  • Allocate responsibilities based on available time and flexibility. One same-gender DCC shared that when one partner became particularly busy during the height of the pandemic, the other took on more household chores. “She was more available,” her partner said. “During that time, she did a bit more.” Another couple decided to take advantage of one partner’s more flexible, work-from-home schedule by having him do more of the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. But their division of labor remains fluid. “Tasks are still often shared because life gets in the way and every week is different in terms of demands,” one partner said. “Usually, whoever has the best excuse not to do something gets let off the hook.”
  • Respond to work-life changes dynamically. Our research found many same-gender DCCs display agility in response to changing circumstances. For example, a two-lawyer couple shared that they trade childcare and cooking responsibilities daily, working around each other’s immovable professional obligations. “We need to calendar when we'll be offline for childcare,” one said. “And we also try to look at big things coming up to make sure, if someone will be out for the whole day, we can adjust.”

Other strategies emerged in our interviews, too. Without the hidden assumption that one partner is “supposed to be” responsible for a certain task, many same-gender DCCs are quicker to seek outside help. “Jane is stronger than me, so she typically snowplows the driveway in the winter,” her partner said. “But last year she was pregnant. I’m useless at [plowing snow], so we hired someone to do it.”

Same-gender DCCs also tend to communicate more frequently about household expectations, based on our research. One couple shared that while they don’t expect housework to be split evenly every day, they do feel chores should be shared equitably over time. “I’d expect things to net out each week unless there’s a logical reason for them not to—for example, if one of us is traveling for work,” one interviewee said. “Otherwise, we’d have a conversation.”

For many same-gender DCCs, an underlying respect for each other’s career—regardless of which partner makes more money—appears to guide their approach to household responsibilities. Fred, a marketing consultant, contributes to household chores even though he is the breadwinner and works longer hours than his partner, who does creative work from home. “There are times when I’m very busy,” Fred commented. “But the minute I have time, I’ll be cooking or wiping things down. I’d say we split things pretty evenly.”

Most couples do not divide housework equally. But for many same-gender DCCs, ongoing conversations make it possible to split housework equitably—in a way that feels sustainable and appropriate to both partners. One interviewee shared that she handles most of the cooking, cleaning, and finances because her wife, Lara, works two jobs, sometimes seven days a week, and cannot work from home. “We’ve had explicit conversations about how we divide things up,” she said. “Lara wants to contribute as much as she can, but it’s hard for her to do more because of her work schedule.”

This isn’t to suggest there isn’t tension. Many same-gender DCCs admitted to arguing about how equitably tasks are divided (“sometimes with a lot of animosity,” one interviewee added). But they often credited the absence of gender norms with allowing for more effective discussions of how tasks should be divided.

“Many times, when we have conversations about who should be doing a certain chore, I secretly wish I could be the ‘useless husband’ in the relationship,” one partner said. “The lack of gender norms means that neither of us has an edge like that. It also makes the conversation fairer.” Another couple said the lack of gender norms actually requires them to have conversations about household chores, which “in the end, makes the relationship better.”

Supporting better balance for all employees

To maintain a thriving workplace, employers could pay attention to employees’ desire for a sustainable work-life balance. Many workers—particularly women and those in dual-career couples—are exhausted by the demands of work and home. About 42 percent of women report feeling burned out (along with 35 percent of men). For women in DCCs with young children, that figure rises to 46 percent (and 39 percent of men). In addition, DCC mothers and fathers report feeling judged when requesting or taking advantage of flexible work arrangements (Exhibit 3).

Women consistently feel more judged when seeking greater work-life balance.

How could companies respond? Through considering three primary actions:

  1. Adopt flexible working norms. Flexible working norms support all dual-career couples. They include providing the option to work from home or on a reduced schedule; empowering employees to set their own schedules; ensuring no meetings occur during school drop-off and pick-up times; and hosting virtual connectivity events for hybrid workers. DCCs could also be recognized as an affinity group, providing a supportive space for discussing issues and sharing advice. Finally, as more employees return to offices, organizations could ensure those who continue working from home are provided with equitable opportunities.
  2. Offer good benefits and encourage their use. Offering and encouraging the use of health and other benefits (such as parental leave), regardless of employees’ relationship type, supports all DCCs in finding a sustainable work-life balance. Companies could also provide benefits to assist with the costs of surrogacy, adoption services, and expanded parental leave.
  3. Provide positive role models. Previous McKinsey research has shown that supportive managers are critical to ensuring team members feel comfortable discussing and taking time for household responsibilities.4 The manager’s position as a role model is especially important as society enters the hybrid “next normal,” where boundaries between work and home may continue to blur. However, leaders should take care to avoid assumptions about an employees’ home lives and instead give them space to define their own models. In particular, managers should not assume that hard-working, top-performing employees don’t also have responsibilities at home.

All couples who live together must strike a balance between professional and household responsibilities—an effort often complicated by gender norms. And DCCs often have an accentuated need for flexibility and support from their employers. The experiences of same-gender DCCs suggest strategies to help all couples find a sustainable balance, including frequent conversations about housework and flexible allocation of responsibilities based on preference, skill, and time. Companies can take note. Supporting dual-career employees is a business imperative—one that will become even more important as companies navigate what work looks like postpandemic.

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