Parents of small children all over the globe must be extremely exhausted by now. Since the COVID-19 pandemic induced closure of schools and childcare facilities in mid-March, parents have had to shoulder a vast amount of domestic and care work alone: without the contribution of state institutions, private child care providers, and kindly grandparents.
Whether for wages or for free, childcare and domestic work are primarily organized and done by women. The domestic gender division of labor has shifted slightly in the past thirty years as women on average reduced their workload and some men have started to pitch in some of the time. But the changes have been small and uneven across social groups and countries. Still, women in most countries spend at least twice as much time as men doing unpaid care work.
Will the COVID-19 pandemic change this or will it imprint existing inequalities in the domestic division of labor even more deeply onto the social fabric? On the one hand, during the lockdown men are spending a great deal more time at home. This could allow those who haven’t had the chance yet to develop a more intimate familiarity with the contents of the diaper bag or the operation of the washing machine. At the same time, early projections of both the International Labour Organization and the European Commission suggest that women are more likely to lose their paid jobs during the crisis, so perhaps they will take up the domestic slack instead? Will then the crisis exacerbate the unequal division of care work or could it alleviate it?
In order to shed light on these old-new patterns of the gender division of labor, we conducted an online survey in Hungary between 6 and 14 April, 2020. Since Hungary closed schools and childcare facilities on March 13, 2020 and instituted serious lockdown measures soon thereafter, by the time of our survey our respondents had been coping with their new circumstances for 3 weeks. Our sample is representative of high school and college educated Hungarian internet users who raise children under 14 years of age in their households.
In recent years Hungary introduced a great number of pronatalist measures along with an ideology which depicts women as mothers and wives first and as useful but strictly complementary participants in the labor market second. Hungary is thus the last country where we would expect to see a shift in the gender division of labor during the crisis- yet this is exactly what we found.
We focused our research on couples. They typically had 2 children at home and almost half were raising at least one child under the age of 6. Most parents were working for wages at the time they answered the questionnaire, and 47% of women and 31% of men were doing so from home.
We asked respondents to tell us whether or not their share of various domestic and childcare tasks has increased since the closure of schools and childcare institutions. Respondents typically overestimate their contributions to such questions, especially when the overall work burden has clearly increased. But we were interested in differences among men and women in how they perceive this change.
Among at least high school educated heterosexual parents, men were significantly more likely to say that their share of domestic, child and elderly care work has increased since the closure of schools, while women claimed that their share remained stable or even decreased. In terms of childcare, for example, 45% of men felt that they were doing a bigger share of the work during the crisis than they did earlier and only 38% of women claimed that they did. This was true for domestic work and elderly care as well. The findings remained when we compared men and women who were similar in a number of important ways: education level, working for wages, age, urban or rural residence and the number of children.
The picture is less rosy when we consider the fact that despite men’s increased share of household labor, they were twice as likely as women to feel no tension between their paid and their care work responsibilities, while many more women than men reported that they had to multitask in their home office. Five times more women than men claimed that it would be helpful if their partner did a greater share of the household and child care work.
Contrary to expectations about women’s disproportionately increased care burden in academic and popular media, men seem to be stepping in, even in a country where neither the state nor employers are especially supportive of a more gender balanced domestic division of labor. The majority of the unpaid care work is still done by women and this work burden has increased sharply. But the inequality of the distribution of family work – at least among people with at least high school education – has decreased, according to both men and women in our sample.
Men’s participation in domestic duties is influenced not only by their social class, gender role attitudes and the national-institutional context but also by immediate circumstances. The sheer physical presence, opportunity, and possibly the emotional experience of emergency and need also matter.
We do not know if these small steps towards gender equality are long-lasting or will end as soon as societies return to some semblance of normalcy, especially if women have more trouble finding paid work in the aftermath of the crisis. Yet these results at least represent a glimmer of hope on an otherwise rather bleak social and economic horizon.
Eva Fodor is a sociologist teaching in the Department of Gender Studies at the Central European University. CEU funded this project.
Aniko Gregor works as a sociologist at ELTE University, Budapest, Faculty of Social Sciences. Currently, she is a research fellow at Freie Universität, Berlin.
Julia Koltai is a researcher at the Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences Centre of Excellence and Assistant Professor of Sociology at ELTE University. Currently she serves as a visiting professor at the Central European University.
Eszter Kováts is a PhD student in Political Science, ELTE University, Budapest.