For many couples, family work at home has increased, but for most of those couples, even when women are still doing more than their partners, women’s relative share of the burden is less lopsided than before the pandemic. On the whole, men have increased the percentage of the housework and childcare that they do since the pandemic. Two big exceptions: Women are doing 70 percent of homeschooling. And among couples where the division of labor was most unequal before the pandemic, women’s absolute AND relative share of family work has increased.
No survey or snapshot captures the diversity of experiences families are having managing the pandemic at home. An unprecedented number of families in the U.S. and other rich countries around the world are at home right now. The rest are caring for family while working away from home, and many are serving on the frontlines as essential workers.
Still, sociologists have detected important patterns that tell us where we could be heading beyond the pandemic—and remind us of where we were before it started. In a briefing report prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families, “Men and Women Agree: During the COVID-19 Pandemic Men Are Doing More at Home,” Daniel Carlson (University of Utah), Richard Petts (Ball State University), and Joanna Pepin (University of Texas-Austin) share results from a survey of 1,060 parents in different-sex couples. In response to fears that the pandemic has dealt a major blow to hopes for gender equality, they conclude: “Our results suggest a more hopeful scenario than those implied by some of the headlines: According to both men and women, men are doing more housework and childcare during the pandemic than before it began, leading to more equal sharing of domestic labor.
Glass half full? Some results yielded a glass half-full perspective:
- While for many families the burdens have grown, about 60 percent of respondents reported that their “time in domestic labor has not changed since the beginning of the pandemic, even accounting for helping children with homework.” This may be due to reductions in things like chauffeuring children, scheduling their activities, and attending their events – a reminder of how much time parents normally spend on domestic labor outside the household.
- “Among most couples where the division of tasks did change, it did so in an egalitarian direction.”
- “A little more than a month after the start of the pandemic, 41 percent of parents reported sharing housework with their partners”—a 15-percentage-point rise over pre-pandemic levels.
- Shared childcare grew by 11 percentage points, from around 45 percent to around 56 percent, with small variations depending on the ages of the children.
- “In no situation — and in no type of family, whether dual-earner where both are working full-time, dual-earner where someone is working part-time, single earner, or both unemployed — did we find that the division of tasks became less likely to be shared.”
…or is the glass half empty? Men who already participated in housework and childcare before the pandemic tended to increase their share of these tasks after. But little progress occurred among couples where men started out less involved. And even the more egalitarian couples did not make the same progress when it came to dividing the novel tasks of homeschooling that the pandemic added to many families’ daily schedules.
- “We find that most women (70 percent) report being primarily responsible for homeschooling during the pandemic.”
- Most of the increased sharing of housework and childcare occurred among couples who had made strides towards dividing these tasks in a less traditional manner before the pandemic. Among couples who had not made such strides, both the absolute amount of women’s work and their relative share of family labor increased substantially. “Of the mothers who continued to be primarily responsible for domestic work during the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly one-third increased their time spent in housework and care of children during the pandemic.”
The bottom line: This new research gives us some hope for greater realization of the promise of shared parenting and housework, while it reminds us of the legacy of inequality that domestic work carries with it. CCF Research Director Stephanie Coontz sums it up: “The bad news is that dads still expect moms to figure out what the kids need, so when a new responsibility comes up, like having to take over home schooling, women end up doing the heavy lifting.” She continues, “The good news, when you combine these findings with other studies on the long-term effect of paternity leave, split shifts, and work from home, is that once men begin to see and participate in the invisible labor they used to be able to ignore, most of them step up their game.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT:
Daniel L. Carlson / Associate Professor / Department of Family and Consumer Studies / University of Utah / firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard J. Petts / Professor / Department of Sociology / Ball State University / email@example.com.
Joanna Pepin / Postdoctoral Fellow / Population Research Center / University of Texas – Austin / firstname.lastname@example.org.
Virginia Rutter is a Framingham State University Professor of Sociology, Council on Contemporary Families Senior Scholar, and co-editor of Families as They Really Are. Follow her at @VirginiaRutter.