Reexamining Gender Partnership at Work During Covid-19
Gender roles are being scrambled during this pandemic, with millions who used to work in an office now working from home—and simultaneously taking on caregiving responsibilities. For some men in particular, this new reality presents an opportunity to engage in household activities traditionally stereotyped as “feminine” or otherwise re-examine or re-imagine their role as partners.
Does this opportunity for gender partnership—when individuals of all gender identities work together to advance equity and inclusion—inside the home extend to gender partnership at work? To explore this question, we turned to our own MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) team. Ludo Gabriele, Senior Director of MARC Branding, reports to Alix Pollack, Vice President, MARC who leads the MARC initiative out of the Learning and Advisory Services department.
Ludo lives in New York City with his wife and two children, ages three and nine. Alix usually resides in New York City as well. Together with her husband and toddler, Alix is currently living with her in-laws in their house in Maryland where she and her husband have the added benefit of grandparents supporting their childcare needs. Before the pandemic, both Alix and Ludo worked several days a week in the New York City office, with the rest of the time working remotely from home. Both are in dual-career relationships with caregiving shared by both partners.
Alix has worked at Catalyst for close to nine years, with Ludo joining the team in September 2019. In a Teams chat, they shared with Editorial Director Leora Tanenbaum why gender partnership and inclusion are so important right now.
What is the biggest challenge you’re facing now as you juggle work responsibilities and family and household responsibilities?
Alix Pollack: The key challenge for me is that I’m being pulled in a lot of different directions. Also, the distinction between when my workday starts and when the rest of my day begins or ends—there’s just no such thing anymore. I constantly have multiple things occupying my mind at any given moment. Not to mention the fact that I’m also thinking about loved ones and colleagues dealing with their own situations of ill-health, unemployment, stresses, and isolation.
Ludo Gabriele: It’s hard to always be “on”—doing caregiving and working around the clock. My wife and I both need time to focus, and we don’t have it. Boundaries no longer exist between the professional and the personal realms: You can be required to do a diaper change or to provide homework assistance in the middle of a task. In a nutshell, this is cooking, cleaning, homeschooling, caregiving while working—all happening in the same location with no transition or break. This is intense.
Has your relationship changed over the last few weeks?
Ludo: From the very beginning, Alix and I clicked professionally and personally. I think our relationship has grown stronger with the current situation. Alix created for me a sense of psychological safety early on, so I feel comfortable being open about my challenges at home. The struggles I share are sometimes work-related, such as productivity fluctuations, but they can also be very personal and connected to my mental and emotional state.
Alix: We had a really collaborative, transparent relationship from day one. But a situation like this tests your values and your ability to live out those values. For me, as a leader of a team, as a manager, it can be challenging to be as productive as I was previously, with everything else that’s going on. I still need to make sure that work is getting done, that we’re able to achieve our mission and provide value to our clients, but without sacrificing anyone’s health or wellbeing or psychological safety.
Ensuring that every one-on-one meeting, and every team meeting, starts with an opportunity to check-in personally is a key part of that process. We all need an outlet to share what we’re going through, and I think it is important to let people know that our team is a safe place to do that. I make sure I am always role-modeling that process by sharing my own struggles. It also helps reinforce the message that we are human first, and in this moment, nothing comes before that. We can then focus on helping our clients, who are going through similar struggles right now. Staying connected to the human side of what we do makes our work more meaningful and relevant.
You both have dedicated the bulk of your careers to strengthening gender partnerships at work. Has this experience with the coronavirus taught you anything new?
Alix: The situation has definitely shined a spotlight on certain dynamics of gender partnership that require our attention. It has made us think a little bit differently as a team about the kinds of conversations we want to be having in this particular moment. We talk about gender roles under “normal” social conditions. But right now, what does responsibility for child care, elder care, housework, education, emotional labor, and leadership look like when much of what we used to take for granted is stripped away? Everything is being disrupted right now, which can either be an opportunity to rebuild in a positive way or something that triggers people to default into “easier” or familiar ways of operating that can be counter to the kind of progress we want to see. It’s why the conversation about gender partnership is so critical right now, and why we have to ensure men continue to be part of that dialogue.
Ludo: I think it’s very important that men partner with other men in this moment because a lot of men are feeling challenged in their sense of self. Many men still are used to going to work every day and they may be a breadwinner, or they wrap their identities around that idea. I think that resilience can be fostered through other men reaching out and just checking in and saying, “How you doing, how are you dealing with this?”
Ludo, are you personally checking in with other men now?
Ludo: I am checking in with many men in my community. Some of them have lost their jobs, have lost someone to the coronavirus. Just saying, “Hey, how are you doing? We haven’t spoken in a while.”
Alix: You’re making a great point that these conversations don’t need to be deep, emotional-breakthrough conversations every time. Just reaching out helps to build a partnership. This also makes us think a little bit differently about what partnership in the workplace looks like under remote working conditions. For example, someone with a tendency to build relationships at work primarily with those who are most like themselves, as opposed to across lines of difference, might be able to overcome that tendency when they’re working in the office because they have the opportunity to bump into someone different from themselves in the hallway or engage with the person sitting at the next desk. But now, those opportunities are taken away. Now it’s really entirely up to the individual to proactively reach out to people and make choices about who they are communicating with and who they are not.
There is a lot of discussion now about the gendered division of labor at home. Are you seeing shifts in the gendered division of labor at work too?
Alix: It’s easy to look at the division of labor only in the context of the household: Who’s cooking, who’s washing the dishes, who’s doing the laundry. But we also need to think about who is asking others in the household how they are doing. Because that also is a form of work—it’s a form of emotional labor.
At work, including in a remote-work situation, often there is an expectation that women are the ones who do the emotional labor, just as they are expected to at home. Men who are members or leaders of teams can take this responsibility for checking in on each other and with their teams. That is a simple way that gender partnership can show up that I think is essential.
We’ve also seen some great examples of partnership on our team recently. We’re all in different situations in our personal lives—some with children, others without; some with elder-care responsibilities, others without; etc. The benefit of checking in with each other and being transparent and trusting in what we share is that it allows people the space to say, “I can’t today, I just don’t have the emotional or intellectual bandwidth or time in my calendar” and role-model that vulnerability and honesty. I’ve seen Ludo do that, which I think is powerful, especially from a man. And then that also opens the space for others on the team to step in and say, “You know what, I happen to be in an okay place today, and I hear that you need support, how can I help?”
Some people believe that in a crisis moment like this one, creating or sustaining an inclusive and equitable work culture is a luxury. What would you say to them?
Alix: Right now, people need support, connection, and empathy. They need psychological safety and flexibility. Inclusion is not about representation in terms of numbers. It is about the work culture. Inclusion is about those small moments of leadership and communication and transparency and flexibility that show up in everyday ways through effective partnerships. For some, participating in and benefiting from effective gender partnerships will be the thing that helps to keep them afloat as they navigate difficult times. For others, those moments of partnership will make the difference between just making it through and being able to tap into their creativity and innovation, which are sorely needed right now.
Ludo: This moment is a test of what companies stand for. When this moment of crisis passes, we will see that the institutions with the strongest values will be the ones left standing. And when employees see that their organization is doing everything it can to value everyone, they give back tenfold.
Senior Director, Editorial
Leora Tanenbaum serves as the editor-in-chief for website content and publications. Leora is the author of five books on the lives of girls and women that are taught in sociology and gender and sexuality college courses. In the 1990s, she coined the term “slut-bashing,” the precursor to “slut-shaming,” and was…