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Decision-making styles within the family can be a significant barrier to achieving gender parity not only at home but in the workplace too, new research from Durham University Business School reveals.

Conducted by Professor Cathy Cassell, alongside co-researchers Laura Radcliffe and Leighann Spencer from the University of Liverpool Management School, the study explores the interdependent relationship between home and professional lives.

In particular, the study focuses on how decisions made by couples at home in relation to family dynamics can help to perpetuate existing gendered stereotypes, holding female progression back.

Analysing Work-Family Decision-Making Practices

The researchers analysed the experiences of 30 heterosexual dual-earner couples in the UK, reviewing their work-family decision-making practices in daily life, conducting interviews and reviewing diary entries over a month-long period. In doing so, they were able to uncover patterns of decision-making that unfairly impact working mothers.

Persistent Gendered Responsibilities

Despite the traditional set-up of women staying home whilst men act as the family’s breadwinner no longer being typical, the researchers say women have seen little decrease in family responsibilities, even as their economic ones increase. Typical household duties such as the school run, arranging medical appointments for children, housework and meal-planning are still handled predominantly by mothers, and even grandmothers rather than fathers.

As a result, women in the study reported a greater level of work-family conflict than men.

“Over the last few decades, work-family literature has consistently recognised that gender equality will not be achieved in the workplace until it is achieved at home,” says Professor Cassell. “Our research shows that while family identities held by men and women may be converging, habitual decision-making processes often continue to prevent equal daily arrangements.”

Biases in Home Decision-Making

The study identified that “habitual decision-making” between couples in the home was characterised by three common biases;

  • Reality blindness: the perception between couples that childcare is shared equally when the evidence of their lifestyle revealed otherwise,
  • Option blindness: where couples fail to see or make use of the variety of options they have for resolving work-family conflict, instead falling back into gendered parenting norms which negatively impact the mother professionally,
  • Gendered competency traps: the belief that women are simply better at handling household and family-oriented tasks, leading men to step back by default.

For example, when a child was sick habitual decision making led to mothers taking time off work, sacrificing annual leave to provide care even in instances where fathers had greater flexibility in their working hours.

Impact on Women's Career Advancement

This, Cassell explains is of vital importance when considering how to progress gender parity in the workplace as such circumstances have been found to harm women’s professional participation and career advancement.

In contrast, having an evident mutual appreciation of the importance of one another’s professional commitments, maintaining continuous communication over care arrangements and establishing turn-taking in consideration of each other’s additional commitments, were all characterised by the study as vital components for better daily work-family decision making.

Those families which engaged in such practices saw women gain a more equal status.

“While the daily decision-making required to encourage equal arrangements may take more effort, take the time to do so is key to improving gender equality and providing a real freedom of choice regarding career and family engagement, for both men and women,” Professor Cassell says.

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