Even before the pandemic, telecommuting had mixed results on gender equity. And mothers telecommuting during the pandemic report more stress and depression than mothers working outside the home. 

As of April/May 2020, 55 percent of currently employed parents were working from home, and many experts predict that telecommuting will become more widespread even if schools do reopen next month. Is telecommuting the new normal? And if so, what does that mean for women’s well-being at home and at work?

A unique new study, Before and During COVID-19: Telecommuting, Work-Family Conflict, and Gender Equality, released by the Council on Contemporary Families, compares parents who were telecommuting before the pandemic and after. The good news? Telecommuting fathers do a lot more childcare than other fathers – enough more to actually even out their time with moms. The bad news? They don’t increase their daily housework at all, while telecommuting women increase theirs by almost 50 minutes. The really bad news? Telecommuting during the pandemic increases mothers’ depression and anxiety significantly more than working from a separate location. One conclusion the authors draw is that women benefit from the boundaries created by work away from home.

Investigators Thomas Lyttelton (Yale Sociology, Emma Zang (Yale Sociology), and Kelly Musick (Cornell Policy Analysis and Management) examined time use data from parents who were telecommuting from before COVID-10 and after. Using data from the 2003-2018 American Time Use Survey (ATUS, = 19,179) and the April and May 2020 COVID Impact Survey (N = 784), they found two distinct patterns of adjustment telecommuting, pre COVID-19:

Telecommuting dads closed the gender gap on childcare. Pre COVID-19, dads spent 67 more minutes caring for children on the days they worked exclusively from home. This was 47 minutes larger than the moms’ increases on work-from-home days.

For housework, the gender gap got worse. Pre COVID-19, when mothers worked from home, they increased their housework by 49 minutes, while fathers did no more housework on work-from-home days than on days they worked away from home.

Work-family spillover hits telecommuting moms hard. Aside from actual child care, telecommuting fathers, pre-COVID-19, reported that children were present while they were working for 21 minutes per day, on average, on days they worked from home. But mothers reported children present when they were working for 54 minutes per day, a gender gap of 27 minutes.

And in the pandemic, telecommuting moms report especially elevated stress. Telecommuting moms are more depressed and stressed than moms who work outside the home — and more depressed and stressed than dads working in either location. Telecommuting dads are actually less anxious when working from home than when at a separate workplace; the opposite is true for moms.

The authors note: “The closure of schools and childcare facilities greatly increases childcare burdens on parents, with telecommuters now expected to educate their children alongside doing their day jobs, a job that has so far fallen most heavily on women…. Mothers telecommuting in April – May 2020 reported feeling anxious, depressed, and lonely at higher rates than telecommuting fathers. The same was not true for mothers in the workplace, where we found no gender differences in stress and depression.”

What are those rates of stress now? In the pandemic, 20 percent of mothers working from home report feeling depressed, while 11 percent of fathers working from home do. For anxiety, six percent of fathers working from home report it, while three times as many mothers — 18 percent — working from home report it. (See Figure 2 in the brief for additional details.)

Where does this leave us?
“Telecommuting seems to work better for gender equity when men do it rather than when women do it. As a historian, my take is that men need to be reintegrated into the household just as women have been reintegrated into the work world. Telecommuting seems to help dads pay attention to childcare requirements they can ignore when at work,” notes Stephanie Coontz, CCF Director of Research.

“By contrast, most telecommuting women find it hard to ignore the internalized pressure to take care of every pile of dirty laundry, sweep up every pile of dirt, and jump to attention every time a child wanders into the room. This is a form of work-family conflict people often ignore when they tout the advantages of working from home, and as this report shows, it’s a source of gender inequality at home and at work,” Coontz concludes.

Brief report: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/covid-19-telecommuting-work-family-conflict-and-gender-equality/
Press release: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/covid-19-telecommuting-work-family-conflict-and-gender-equality-advisory/

Virginia Rutter is co-editor of Families as They Really Are. Follow her at @VirginiaRutter.