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How has coronavirus affected the division of domestic labour?

How has the division of family responsibilities for childcare, housework and home schooling been affected by lockdown? While the extra burden of ‘home production’ has fallen more on women, new ways of working may encourage a more equal allocation within households in future.

People are spending much more time at home during lockdown. This has meant a shock to the demand for home production: more childcare and home schooling because schools and nurseries are closed; and possibly more housework because of more time at home and because options to purchase goods and services are restricted. At the same time, there has also been a shock to the supply of home production as many people who have lost their jobs now have more time on their hands.

The burden of extra home production has fallen unequally on women with the potential for long-term negative impacts on their wages and job prospects, as well as potentially creating tensions within households. More positively, new ways of working – and the fact that many fathers are also now doing more – may help to change gender norms and lead to a more equal allocation in some households in the longer term.

What does evidence from economic research tell us?

  • Women have been more likely to lose their jobs than men during the crisis. In part, this is because they work in sectors that are more adversely affected by lockdown. But the need for them to provide additional childcare may also have played a role.
  • Families with young children are doing the equivalent of a working week in childcare.
  • Women are doing the majority (more than 60%) of the additional childcare. This cannot be explained by the fact that they are less likely to be working: they typically do high levels of childcare even when they are working from home or at work. The increase in juggling will have damaging effects on their productivity and future career prospects.
  • Men have also substantially increased the childcare and housework they do compared with before the crisis. But their childcare time is more sensitive to their employment than it is for women. They are also specialising in certain types of childcare activities (home schooling and play) and housework (grocery shopping).
  • Nevertheless, more equal distributions of responsibilities in many households and new ways of working (notably increased home working) may lead to longer-term changes in gender norms.
  • The additional burden of childcare and housework may also create tensions within the household, with potentially negative effects on the mental health of adults and children, and perhaps feeding into family instability.

How reliable is the evidence?

Differences in employment effects

Several studies show that, unlike in previous recessions, women are more likely to lose their jobs than men. Social distancing measures have had a larger impact on sectors that have a high share of women employees (Joyce and Xu, 2020; Alon et al, 2020). In addition, even where women work in sectors that have not been shut down, they are more likely to work in jobs that can be done from home (Hupkau and Petrongolo, 2020).

Survey evidence confirms that women were more likely to lose their job in the early stages of the crisis:

  • One study finds that by mid-April, women were 5 percentage points more likely than men to lose their job in the UK. In the United States, the gap was 8 percentage points (Adams-Prassl et al, 2020).
  • A later study finds that by May, mothers of young children were 9 percentage points less likely still to be working than fathers (Andrew et al, 2020).
  • A further study confirms these findings (Sevilla and Smith, 2020). By May, women were 5 percentage points less likely than men still to be working (and 3 percentage points more likely to be on furlough and 2 percentage points more likely to have lost their jobs).
  • In the same survey, the gender gap among those with young children was larger, at 10 percentage points. They researchers also find that the probability that women are not working is positively correlated with the share of childcare that they did before the crisis, indicating that childcare responsibilities play a role.

Total additional childcare

Surveys show that families with young children are doing the equivalent of a working week of additional childcare, often on top of paid work:

  • The Adams-Prassl et al (2020a) survey asked men and women to report hours spent looking after children and home schooling. Combining the two activities, the mean total childcare across weekdays (five days) is 35 hours. This averages across all families.
  • The Sevilla and Smith (2020) survey asked respondents to report the number of hours of additional childcare done per day by themselves and their partners. The mean additional childcare across the week (seven days) is 49 hours per household (the median is 40). This averages across families with young children (those aged 12 and under).

Women bearing the brunt of childcare

Time-use survey evidence shows that women do more childcare and housework in normal times (Cattan et al, 2020; Gimenez Nadal and Sevilla, 2012; Sevilla, 2010). Recent surveys confirm that this is also the case during the crisis:

  • In the Adams-Prassl et al (2020a) survey, women in the UK report doing approximately an hour and a half more childcare per workday than men.
  • In the Andrew et al (2020) survey, women report doing childcare in more than 10 hour-long time slots in a day, while men report doing childcare during 8 hour-long time slots.
  • Sevilla and Smith (2020) calculate the within-household childcare allocation, finding that, on average, women are responsible for doing 63% of the additional childcare.

An increase in fathers’ contributions

Fathers are nevertheless doing a lot of childcare and substantially more than before the crisis. The Sevilla and Smith (2020) survey finds that men do an average of 19 additional hours per week, compared with 30 done by women. But men’s domestic labour is distinctive to that of women:

  • Men’s childcare time is much more sensitive to their employment than it is for women. Sevilla and Smith (2020) show that women who are working do as much childcare as men who are on furlough and that there is only a more equal allocation when men are not working.
  • Similarly, Andrew et al (2020) find that mothers who have stopped working for pay during lockdown while their partner continues to work end up doing twice as much childcare and housework as their partner. In the reverse situation, in families where the father has stopped working, the parents share childcare and housework equally.
  • Men tend to specialise in different tasks to women. They do relatively more home schooling than looking after children (Andrew et al, 2020; Farre and Gonzalez, 2020) and more playing than home schooling (Carlson et al, 2020). They also specialise in grocery shopping, while doing a more equal division of total housework.
  • This is true for Spain (Farre and Gonzalez, 2020), the United States (Biroli et al, 2020) and Italy, the UK and the United States (Carlson et al, 2020). Farre and Gonzales (2020) suggest that grocery shopping is a relatively easy out-of-household task and perceived as carrying more risk.

Potential changes in gender norms

There is, as yet, no direct evidence on the impact of Covid-19 on gender norms. In many households, women are doing more childcare, and pre-existing norms may become entrenched.

But some households, particularly those where men are not working, are now experiencing a more equal gender division and this may lead to longer-term positive changes, particularly if they are combined with new ways of working (more working from home). Sevilla and Smith (2020) report that 28% of those who are currently working from home did not previously do so.

Previous research on the long-term effects of changes in domestic labour has mixed results. The evidence on gender and disasters suggests strong ‘reversion to the norm’ – that is, things returning to their long-term averages (Peek and Fothergill, 2008; Alway et al, 1998). Some evidence from paternity leave policies suggests that temporary changes can have longer-term effects on social norms, shown by increases in the time that fathers spend in household activities, including childcare (Farre and Gonzalez, 2019; Patnaik, 2019).

Two things are distinctive about the Covid-19 lockdown. The first is the scale of the demand-side shock. The changes have been profound. The total amount of childcare being done at home is of a completely different order to usual amounts because of the closure of almost all formal childcare. The impact has also been across the board, affecting all families, meaning that almost all men have increased the quantity of childcare that they do.

But the second difference is that this is not a deliberate policy to promote a more equal distribution of childcare: changes in the division of labour are unintended consequences of measures to stop a virus spreading. The changes that have been brought about may need to be recognised and reinforced to have longer-term effects.

Effects on tension and mental health

There is evidence that the burden of childcare and its allocation may lead to tensions within the household and affect the mental health of parents. One study finds that households that share childcare generally report the lowest levels of tension, but that there are subsets of sharing respondents that also report high levels of tensions and they vary by country (Biroli et al, 2020):

  • Respondents in Italy that report the highest tension are those who either continue to be solely responsible for childcare or those who have seen a reallocation of childcare to themselves from shared and outsourced provision.
  • This is different to the UK, where the highest tensions are reported by respondents who are now sharing more of the childcare than before lockdown, regardless of whether they were previously solely responsible or their partner was.
  • The US sample is somewhat in between with highest tensions reported by both those who have seen an increase in their load and those who share and were previously solely responsible. In terms of wellbeing, women in all three samples reported consistently higher anxiety than men, and they reported lower wellbeing than men in both Italy and the UK, while the averages are closer for women and men in the US sample.

A separate study also finds that lockdown in the United States has been linked to lower mental health among women (and not men) and an increase in the gender mental health gap, linked to worries about finance and childcare (Adams-Prassl et al, 2020b).

Where can I find out more?

Inequality in the impact of the coronavirus shock: evidence from real time surveys: Abi Adams-Prassl, Teodora Boneva, Marta Golin and Christopher Rauh have a project to survey people in the UK, Germany and the United States providing real-time information on labour market effects of the crisis.

The impact of Covid-19 on gender equality: Titan Alon, Matthias Doepke, Jane Olmstead-Rumsey and Michele Tertilt provide evidence of the effect of the pandemic on gender equality in the United States.

How are mothers and fathers balancing work and family under lockdown? Alison Andrew and colleagues at IFS.

Baby steps: The gender division of childcare during the COVID19 pandemic: Almudena Sevilla and Sarah Smith.

Life in lockdown: what is happening to the division of childcare and housework? Pietro Biroli, Steven Bosworth, Marina Della Giusta, Amalia Di Girolamo, Sylvia Jaworska and Jeremy Vollen.

Who are UK experts on this question?

Author: Marina Della Giusta
Photo by Annie Spratt for Unsplash
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