Throughout the first two and a half years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the one constant has been change. Universal lockdowns in Spring 2020 became a hodgepodge of work, school, and childcare modalities in late 2020 and early 2021 as society partially reopened. This was followed by the introduction of vaccines and receding case counts in mid-2021. Hope that the pandemic could be ending, however, was dashed in late 2021/early 2022 as new variants like Delta and Omicron led to new restrictions. With so much change, everyone has had to assess (and reassess) decisions about work, schooling, and health, creating immense stress–particularly for parents.
Early in the pandemic, there were widespread fears that decades of progress toward gender equality would be erased. Unemployment rates rose more dramatically for women than men, particularly for mothers. Mothers’ time in housework and childcare also increased, and many stories suggested that the increased burden of having children home from schools and daycares fell primarily on mothers. Evidence also showed that gendered parenting attitudes became more conservative. Yet, at the same time, fathers also spent more time in housework and childcare than prior to the pandemic, and the division of domestic labor within the U.S. became more egalitarian. This provided some hope that as fathers spent more time at home due to lockdowns, they would step up and do more – leading to greater gender equality.
Unfortunately, less is known about what has happened since the early months of the pandemic. Did fathers’ increased participation in domestic labor persist as the pandemic continued, or was this just a short-term blip on the radar? Understanding the long-term consequences of the pandemic is particularly challenging because shifts in employment, remote work, gender attitudes, access to care supports, and schooling all happened simultaneously. In a recent study published in Population Research and Policy Review, we considered how these various factors may have affected parents’ divisions of housework and childcare during the first year of the pandemic. Using novel data from the Survey on U.S. Parents’ Divisions of Labor During COVID-19 (SPDLC), we examined trends in parents’ divisions of domestic labor from March 2020 to November 2020 and what factors led to changes in these divisions of labor.
Results show both good news and bad news for gender equality advocates. On the one hand, we find that fathers remained more likely to share childcare tasks equally in November 2020 than pre-pandemic. We also find that shifts to working from home helped to facilitate fathers’ increased involvement in childcare. Given that remote work continues to be more common now than prior to the pandemic, this may enable fathers to remain more engaged in childcare as the pandemic persists. On the other hand, we find that the percentage of parents who share housework equally has reverted back to pre-pandemic levels. We also find that parents are less likely to share housework and childcare equally when mothers are unemployed or when mothers work from home – two trends that continue to be more common than prior to the pandemic. We also find that shifts toward more traditional gender attitudes also reduces the amount of childcare performed by fathers.
These results suggest that answering the question about whether the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated gender inequality in domestic labor is complicated. The pandemic appears to provide fathers with greater opportunities to be the more highly engaged parents they say they want to be, and has shown that greater access to remote work for fathers may help to facilitate greater gender equality in domestic labor. However, gender inequality in housework seems to be more deeply entrenched than childcare. And, continued employment disruptions among mothers leaves them to shoulder the burden of housework and childcare when they are not working. Although this uneven progress toward gender equality may no longer be as promising as some initially hoped, the unique circumstances of the pandemic have helped provide a blueprint for how further progress can be made. To achieve greater gender equality in domestic labor, we need to increase mothers’ opportunities in the paid labor market, and we simultaneously need to provide structural supports such as regular access to remote work for fathers that will enable them to be more engaged at home.
Daniel L. Carlson is an Associate Professor of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah. He is a sociologist and family demographer studying the gendered division of labor. He serves on the board of directors for the Council on Contemporary Families. Twitter: @DanielCarlson_1
Richard J. Petts is a Professor of Sociology at Ball State University, and serves on the board of directors for the Council on Contemporary Families. You can read more about his research at www.richardpetts.com and can follow him on Twitter @pettsric.