As an eternal optimist, I thought Covid19 could in some ways be a good thing for women. I hoped that confinement and working from home would mean that the burden of work women carry to look after the home and the family would become more visible to men, who would in turn be embarrassed by their previous poor contribution and respond by stepping up and taking their share of it. And that this new balance would continue after this crisis and give women more time and energy for their work and careers.
My bubble was quickly burst as everywhere I looked I was reading that this is rather a disaster for women and for gender equality, that women are going to need to take on all the extra work of having the whole family at home – including home schooling. Many are fearing that, as a result, women are not going to have time or capacity to do their jobs well and are more likely than men to be made redundant as a result of the crisis.
So I thought I would put out a little survey to find out if there is any hope to be found in all this – and the results are fascinating.
Let me start by saying that my optimistic self was rather too… optimistic. The survey data suggests that women are generally taking on even more of the work at home while we all work from home. 39% of women say they are doing more housework, with only 5% say they are doing less. 34% of women are doing more cooking and meal preparation, only 11% say they are doing less. 26% of women are doing more of the childcare, including home schooling, with only 5% say they are doing less. There are also some signs that women are being harder hit than men on the employment front, with 15% of women say they have stopped working as a result of Covid19, compared with 11% of men and 80% of women expect to continue to be employed after the crisis, versus 90% of men.
Another theory going in was that women with husbands or male partners would take on even more of the home and family work than before because they are generally earning lower salaries than the men, and so the man’s more lucrative and ‘important’ work would take priority and the extra household labour would fall on her shoulders. In fact, this survey shows that women with a higher average annual salary than their partners’ are more likely to be doing more housework, food shopping, cooking and meal preparation and childcare than before than women with a lower salary are. This may be because these higher-paid women were carrying proportionately less of the home and family work burden before and working from home has led them to take more of it on; if so, one has to ask why men have not responded the same way
There are a few rays of light in the survey data. One is that at least some men do seem to be doing more of the food shopping. Whilst 25% of women still say they are doing more than before, 22% do say they are doing less and 63% of men say they are doing more (to be fair, some of the men are saying they are also doing more housework, cooking and childcare, but far fewer). Perhaps this is men desperately wanting an excuse to go outside or get away from the intensity of lockdown, or possibly by women wanting an excuse to get them out of the house! Whatever the reason, there do seem to be signs that this is one area where some men are stepping up.
One other slightly encouraging sign (and I am aware I may be clutching at straws here) is that the percentage of women saying they are doing more of the work for the house, family and kids is lower when their husband or partner is working from home, compared to still working outside the home. So at least signs that men being at home and present is driving some difference.
Overall, though, based on this survey data you have to be disappointed. Disappointed in men for not seeing now they are working from home what they could perhaps be excused for not realizing when they were out at work all day every day: that their wife or partner is carrying a huge share of the household work and childcare that needs to be significantly reduced, not increased. This is something that should be taken seriously – before this crisis, women were already carrying the majority of the burden, often at the expense of their work and careers, sometimes even to the point of exhaustion and stress. Not surprising that many women are highly irritated by social media messages that we should all use this time to learn a new skill, or do more crafting. Most women are content just to make it to the end of the day.
One question I am asking is why do women accept this unequal distribution of work – and accept it getting even more unequal as a result of Covid19? Why aren’t more women using it as a catalyst to discuss and change the way things are done in the home? One woman who responded to the survey has done exactly that and created a family rota for all the housework and meal preparation, something she probably should have done years ago but this crisis has triggered. I’m not someone who believes in putting the responsibility for gender equality on women’s shoulders only and we need men to step up, but there is also a time for standing up for ourselves and expecting others to do their share.
Maybe we can start by handing over the food shopping responsibility to men – they seem to like it.
Read more from Gill Whitty-Collins at www.gillwhittycollins.com or follow her on linkedin.com/in/gillwhittycollins