Gender Division of Labor during COVID: Can Remote Work Improve Gender Equality at Home?

The closure of schools and childcare centers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified pressure on U.S. parents already struggling to balance employment and family caregiving in a country that provides little social support. The move of schooling and childcare into the home – along with the still-unfolding effects on women’s employment – has raised questions about the long-term consequences for gender equality in the U.S.

Some are optimistic that these large-scale disruptions – which, for some, have included new opportunities to work from home – offer a chance to increase gender equality in the division of care and domestic work. As remote work decreases the need for “face time” at the office, classic rationales justifying an unequal division of domestic labor may also recede. Others, however, remain skeptical, noting that if the increased unpaid work falls disproportionately on mothers, the loss of childcare and on-site schooling will only exacerbate existing gender inequalities, especially given women’s greater risk of job loss in the current “shesession.” Additionally, even if remote work offers an opportunity to increase gender equality for remote workers, access to this arrangement remains a largely white-collar privilege that limits such potential gains to a privileged few.

In our study, published in Gender & Society, we ask how families experienced and responded to sudden changes in paid and unpaid work in the early months of the pandemic, focusing in particular on how these experiences varied by parents’ ability to work remotely.

Analyzing nationally representative survey data from 478 partnered parents, collected in April 2020, we examine how the loss of childcare and in-person schooling affected the division of housework, childcare, and children’s remote learning as well as how pressured parents felt about the sudden responsibility for their children’s schooling.

Findings

Our results indicate that among couples with children, the consequences of these pandemic-induced shifts in schooling and childcare largely depended not just on individuals’ own work circumstances but on their partners’ as well.

In families where both parents worked from home, the response to the increased domestic workload was generally egalitarian – mothers and fathers alike reported almost identical increases in housework and childcare and in responsibility for housework and child care as well.  Mothers and fathers in households with two teleworkers also reported feeling nearly equal amounts of pressure about their children’s schooling.  Even in the scenario where both parents worked from home, however, women still bore disproportionate responsibility for unpaid work since similar increases left pre-pandemic inequality intact. Mothers were thus more than twice as likely as fathers to say they were primarily responsible for housework and childcare during the pandemic and over 1.5 times more likely to report taking on the bulk of managing their children’s home learning.

Disparities in housework, childcare, and home education were even greater when only one spouse worked remotely. When mothers worked from home alone, they were more likely than mothers in dual remote-worker couples to have increased their housework time, absorbing the additional domestic work. In contrast, when fathers alone worked from home, they reported far less involvement in domestic work than either mothers working from home alone or fathers in dual-remote working couples.

When domestic workloads increased and neither parent worked from home, mothers mostly picked up the slack – especially when it came to housework and home learning. Among couples not working remotely, mothers were twice as likely as fathers to have increased their household time and were three times as likely to report being primarily responsible for housework. These mothers were also seven times as likely as fathers to say they did the majority of children’s home learning and, consequently, were twice as likely to report feeling pressure related to their children’s remote education.

The takeaway

We cannot yet know the longer-term consequences of the rise in remote work post-pandemic. Taken together, however, these findings suggest that gender remains a powerful force in organizing domestic work despite the greater flexibility that working remotely allows. In the most optimistic scenario, where both partners worked remotely, the gender division of labor remained relatively stable with both mothers and fathers contributing more to housework and childcare in the wake of school and childcare closures. In couples where neither parent worked from home or where mothers alone did so, mothers became the stopgap who absorbed most of the additional caring and schooling of children. For reasons that need greater exploration, fathers who work from home were generally better able to protect themselves from the incursions of unpaid care work. Going forward, our findings suggest that whether remote work fosters more equality or exacerbates preexisting inequalities will depend on the varied forms it takes in families.


Allison Dunatchik is a PhD student in Sociology and Demography at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research centers on gender, work and family, with a focus on how public policies affect gender and class inequalities inside and outside of the household.

Kathleen Gerson is Collegiate Professor of Arts & Science and Professor of Sociology at New York University. She is the author of “The Science and Art of Interviewing” and “The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family,” among other books. She is currently writing a book on the collision of work and caretaking in contemporary America.

Jennifer Glass is the Centennial Commission Professor of Liberal Arts in the Department of Sociology of the University of Texas–Austin, and Executive Director of the Council on Contemporary Families. Her recent research explores how work–family public policies improve family well-being, and why mothers continue to face a motherhood pay penalty as their income generating responsibility for their children grows.

Jerry A. Jacobs, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the co-founder and first president of the Work and Family Researchers Network. Jacobs has written extensively about women’s careers and work-family issues. His six books include The Time Divide: Work, Family and Gender Inequality (2004) with Kathleen Gerson and the Changing Face of Medicine: Women Doctors and the Evolution of Health Care in America (2008) with Ann Boulis.

Haley Stritzel is a PhD candidate in Sociology and a graduate student trainee in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Haley uses a range of quantitative and demographic research methods to study the family and neighborhood contexts of child and adolescent health. Her dissertation focuses on the geographic distribution and correlates of foster care entries associated with parental substance use.

Revolution Unstalled?: The Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis on the Domestic Division of Labor in Hungary

Photo credit: Balogh Zoltan/ MTI

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.

Findings

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.

Take away

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.

Factory Girls After the Factory: Female Return Migrations in Rural China

By Julia Chuang

Journalists frequently argue that the rise of global outsourcing has generated countless jobs for women in manufacturing, particularly in coastal China’s famed Special Economic Zones. For example, in a 2000 New York Times op-ed, journalist Nicholas Kristof described a trip he took to a factory in the boomtown of Dongguan. There, he wrote, factory girls “seemed to regard it as a plus that the factory allowed them to work long hours. Indeed, some had sought out this factory precisely because it offered them the chance to earn more.”

There are a lot of assumptions packed in this statement. It is true that wages we consider abominably low in the U.S. go a long way for young women in China. But this is a dangerous line of logic. Today, factory managers – and global investors, for that matter – regularly make the assumption that young women are not only wiling to work for less, they should work for less. They reason that these women are often single, not supporting children. If they do have children, managers assume, then they also have a husband who is the primary breadwinner. Continue reading “Factory Girls After the Factory: Female Return Migrations in Rural China”

Cheap Food & Women’s Work

By Ivy Ken & Benjamín Elizalde

People tend to think about school meals from the point of view of children:  Does the food taste good?  Is it nutritious?  How much of it is thrown away?

Feeding kids at school, though, is also a labor issue.  We spent half of last year in Chile to study the school feeding program there, focusing on the labor conditions of women along the commodity chain that supplies public school children with meals.  The government outsources this public service to private companies that hire workers to prepare students’ food.  In Chile these workers are called manipuladoras de alimentos:  food handlers.  More affectionately they call each other tías or señoras de la cocina, and throughout the country these women are organized, unionized, and politically active.

In October 2014 the President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, used the occasion of International Rural Women´s Day to announce a new law to support women’s work.  “All companies that help the state to serve Chile should be the best, with outstanding labor practices,” she said (translated).  The law applied to 40,000 manipuladoras along with cleaning and maintenance staff, security workers, and drivers, or in other words, employees of companies that contract with the state.  For manipuladoras, the law requires a yearly bonus of CLP$67,500 (about US$100) and salary for the months of the year when school is out of session.  To accomplish this, the government is supposed to give priority to the food service companies that agree to pay it. Continue reading “Cheap Food & Women’s Work”