Attorney Yaron Reiter has been a father for 18 years, but only when the coronavirus lockdown gave him no choice did he ever spend days at home with his four children. “It was a very scary situation in many ways – in terms of health, employment and financially – and yes, also having four children at home,” says Reiter, whose wife, Elinor, continued with her MA studies. “It was stressful at first but became unexpectedly welcome.”
The coronavirus put over a million Israelis on unpaid leave; many others began working from home. Schools were closed and face-to-face contact with grandparents was barred. The traditional division of household responsibilities underwent an upheaval. Many men who weren’t deemed essential workers mandated to continue going to their jobs during the crisis discovered they were needed at home. It will be hard for them to go back to the old ways.
“Before the coronavirus it was something that required advance preparation – planning what to do with them, how to spend the time,” says Reiter. “It was for a few hours in midweek or a few hours on the weekend. Not an entire day, day after day, without knowing when it would end. In fact, it was really fun for the most part. The children loved it, and so did Elinor and I.”
Shai Monzon, a father of six who works for Intel Israel, was working from home during the lockdown. He also helped his daughter prepare for the matriculation exam in math and created a list of personal goals with his children. At the start of lockdown, he would shut himself up in his workroom at 10 A.M. and leave it only at night. Yet slowly but surely Monzon began to take advantage of the flexibility of working from home. He still works long hours, but eats lunch with the children and goes out to the yard when they are playing. Instead of getting reports about their day when he returns from work, he experiences it.
A study conducted in April by Dr. Or Anabi, a researcher at the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute, found that 36% of both fathers and mothers polled said they were managing very well or quite well working from home.
Yaniv Yankovich, an executive at a large high-tech firm, could have gone back to work weeks ago, but he chose not to. He is the father of three children ages five to 14, and his wife is a high-level civil servant. “She returned to work in early May, the children returned to their schools shortly after that and I stayed home. I could have gone to the office, but I opted to stay home, and it was quite an easy choice for me,” he says.
Chance for change
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Anabi says Reiter, Monzon, Yankovich and other fathers embody the opportunity for change in the Israeli job market. His doctoral thesis on fatherhood in Israel, published a year ago, found that fathers would like to be more involved in taking care of their children but that many were prevented from doing so by long work hours.
“Work has a tendency to suck you in with all its might and not to let go,” says Reiter, echoing the survey’s conclusions. But then he adds: “Of course, I’ll try to change, but I’m not sure how long that will last. It was good for everyone – my relationship with them is more meaningful. I gained confidence in my ability to be alone with the children that I didn’t have before,” he says.
Anabi found that mothers spent twice as much time on household chores and child care as fathers. That was due mainly to the length of fathers’ workday. When they worked fewer hours and enjoyed more workplace flexibility, they became more involved in home life. The length of womens’ workday had less of an influence.
Anabi found that fathers participated relatively more in the morning tasks, like getting children ready for school, but spent much less in afternoon activities, such as picking children up from kindergarten. Their involvement increased again towards bedtime, most of all putting children to bed. But his study also showed that fathers chose to be involved in the more “rewarding” tasks and less so with the drudgery of cleaning and laundry.
The crisis led to a change in these patterns. “I’m home, so I already stack and empty the dishwasher, take out the garbage, do all sorts of chores that used to be done mostly by my partner, and I also pick up our young daughter from preschool,” says Yankovich. He says his presence in the house also lowers the level of tension. “If, for example, my partner was late getting to the preschool it would require complicated arrangements and pressure. Now it’s less important because I’m home in any case. It gives her flexibility …. Everything flows much better.”
Liora Bowers, a researcher in the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, sees the transition to distance working as an opportunity to reduce gender inequality in the job market and to accelerate a change in norms that was already underway. In two-adult households, for example, the number of hours that women spent weekly on household chores declined from 50.5 in 2012 to 43.3 in 2018 while hours spent by men increased from 21.3 to 27.4.
Bowers cites a survey conducted by Prof. Tamar Saguy and Dr. Michal Reifen-Tagar, of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, showing that men reported an increase of 10% in the time they spent with their children during the lockdown, compared to the preceding period. “For the first time we saw men who had to take on a bigger share of household tasks. In countries where there is paternity leave, we see that later on, too, they are more involved in what happens at home,” she says.
Inbal Orpaz, a consultant on innovation, a former correspondent for TheMarker and founder of the #WomaninTech initiative, isn’t convinced there is a sea change underway. “The coronavirus was an extreme situation, but in many homes it was the mothers who bore the burden, and that only increased the gender gap,” she says.
Creating work options
In high-tech, the Women in High-Tech survey conducted in early March found that parenting was a far more important consideration for women in high-tech than for men. “Data show that many women leave [the industry] after giving birth,” says Orpaz, but adds that greater work flexibility and more work-at-home opportunities could keep them on the career path.
On the question as to whether the option of working from home would be an influential factor in choosing where to work, 38% of the mothers said yes, compared with 26% of fathers.
Men could also benefit. Yankovich, for example, says working from home opened a window to combine fatherhood and career. “My work hours didn’t decline – on the contrary, they even increased, but I use them better. I try to make time from 1 to 2 P.M., when I prepare food for [the children] and sit with them, and they tell me things that happened to them during the day. Before I used to return at 7 to 7:30 P.M. and they were already busy with their own issues.”
Orpaz says it’s still rare to find fathers with Yankovich’s perspective. “People want more balance between work and life, to see and spend more time with our family. But there’s a stronger tendency of mothers to work from home. The issue of flexible work hours is more critical for mothers,” she says.
In fact, many fear that the changing work patterns may actually harm gender equality. If it is mainly women that take advantage of the flexible-work option and men continue to work from the office, women may find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to pay raises and promotions.
“Organizations that continue to allow working from home have to ensure that it doesn’t become a reason for gender discrimination and one more thing that creates gender gaps and leaves women behind,” says Orpaz. “We have to encourage men to do it, too.”
Yankovich says the coronavirus lockdown and the experience of working from home was so significant that it will be hard to turn back the wheel. “I really like it and want it to continue, and I no longer believe that we’ll go back to a full work week from the office,” he says.
Change will have to come from the bottom up “Employers have to get the message – they have to recognize that it’s not a temporary situation, that it works well, that productivity is as good as it was before and that there’s no way back. We’re working now on a very big project that we would never have thought could be done in such a format, but it’s working and that’s good proof that it’s possible,” says Yankovich.
He says global work patterns will also have an influence on Israel. “The moment that international companies say the default choice is to work from home, the market will fall into line. Because if a job candidate comes and says a competing employer will allow him work from home, we won’t be able to get hire him,” he predicts. “The coronavirus was an unusual social experiment that made that possible.”
Monzon says that even before the coronavirus he was an involved father, but now it’s more important to him than before to be physically present. He admits he misses the office, but hopes that when he goes back to working from the office he’ll be able to create balance that allows him to be at home a few days a week. “My daughter says that I arrive full of energy to prepare sandwiches,” he says with a smile.
Nir Keidar, deputy director general of the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry and a father of three, says the lockdown forced him to work longer hours, but it still improved family togetherness.
“The children were at home, I had more interface with them,” he says. “It made things more complicated, because it isn’t easy to balance work and home life – the children want attention and they don’t care that dad is working.” But he says that flexible work policies enabled him to take a break from 6 to 8 P.M. every day to be with his kids at bedtime before returning to work.
Even before the coronavirus he made sure to pick up his children from school once a week and always returned home between 5 and 7 P.M. “I see working from home as an opportunity, but it has to be done right – to set rules at work and at home that help the change to succeed.”
He adds that not all his friends share his desire for change. “Some were scared by the intensity during the lockdown. There are some for whom the workplace is a refuge,” he says.
Although about 12.5% of men in civil service jobs enjoy benefits for parents, a survey by the Civil Service Commission showed that few took advantage of them. The benefits most commonly used by fathers are additional money for daycare, followed by a shorter work day, but only a quarter of those polled said they took advantage of them. Even fewer used sick pay due to a child’s illness, a vacation day after army reserve duty or the option of working overtime from home. Only 2% of the men used their right to take paternity leave instead of their partner.
The commission found in a survey that half of the male respondents claimed that they didn’t even know that they were to parenting benefits. A quarter thought the benefits were only awarded to women. About 30% complained there was too much bureaucracy required in order to take advantage of the rights. About a quarter of the respondents said that they were afraid that if they use their rights as parents they would be criticized by managers or colleagues, or that their promotion prospects would suffer. The commission says that one of their objectives is to change that by making parenting benefits accessible and less bureaucratic.