According to the ILO, in normal times women already carry out 76% of the total hours of unpaid work globally. Women around the world do three times more unpaid work than men. For many households worldwide, taking care of the home, including children, often falls on the shoulders of women. Pandemics historically have worsened things, threatening women’s already more fragile economic position and deepening existing inequalities. However it does not have to happen that way. Having millions of parents at home, including more fathers at home than there have ever been, can also help us reinvent that model. The ILO estimates that it will take 210 years to close the unpaid work gap, which has been reduced by 7 minutes over the last two decades. What if the COVID-19 crisis gave us a chance to rethink the relationship between parenting and work, and in the process fatherhood?
Today our school closures and isolation at home mean that families must do everything themselves instead of appealing to schools, nurseries, and paid help. This is exposing faults in the model of working couples, where even though both worked, there was an additional burden of unpaid, often invisible, work that fell on women. The fact that this burden persists during a time when both parents are at home, shows that the double burden of women is a cultural issue rather than an issue of time alone–women are expected (by society and thus by individuals) to do the work. However, instead of one person absorbing all the additional hours of child and homecare, couples have a chance to redraw these boundaries more equally. If both are at home, and both are working, both can do things. We can transform this into an opportunity for all of us to emerge out of this crisis on a more equal footing.
The unprecedented conditions created by the crisis gives women an opportunity to reinvent and reshape their roles. Rewiring our households involves first and foremost breaking down the cultural conditioning that granted us those roles in the first place. The only way to undo culture is through education and experience, which can slowly build a new, different model. Instead of simply expecting men to load and unload the dishwasher, we can explain to them why it is important that they do so. We can reinvent parenthood by making men experience fatherhood the same way women live motherhood, by giving them an equal chance to spend time schooling their children, giving them the time to read or play with children, organizing birthday parties, and even cooking and putting their children to bed. If women can find the time to do it, men can, too.
If we want to live in a more equal world, we need to start creating it at home. I believe that everything starts with the individual. If fathers were more involved it would change everything for gender equality–women would reduce their double burden, children whether girls or boys would understand their respectful roles differently and consequently behave differently. It is through our simple gestures such as unloading a dishwasher that we create the world we live in– it says everything about who we are and what we believe in– it is the message that our children will integrate and in time, repeat. If we rethink ourselves within the family, we also rethink ourselves outside of it. It would redraw all the unfair lines that society has drawn for women for thousands of years and hopefully do so for much longer.