Coronavirus has led to many more families spending time together.
Students have come home to lockdown with their families, clubs, groups and societies are cancelled for the foreseeable future, and no-one can leave the house to socialise as they usually would. While itself it is not a negative thing, this intense family-time is highlighting the gendered roles that still exist within the family and society. Roles that many women, including myself, had thought we had moved past. Coronavirus has the potential to undo the decades of progress for women in the space of a few short months.
There are many people who will deny that this is the case. Both men and women, fathers and mothers, have come together in a very difficult time to manage the change in lifestyle that coronavirus has brought with it. The shopping, cleaning, home-schooling and work has all changed, and we have had to adapt our daily lives to accommodate each other and respect the stresses that living together so intensely bring.
Yet studies indicate that across the world, the burden of the change brought about by the coronavirus is being shouldered by women within the household. The traditional attitudes, in which women occupy the ‘private sphere’ of the household, and men occupy the ‘public sphere’ of work are returning to familial routines. The majority of domestic responsibilities are generally disproportionately falling on the female members of the family. In Spain for example, by the time the 6-week lockdown was announced (in which no children could go outside), women were already spending an average of 2.5 hours more than the male members of their households on domestic tasks.
According to the UN, women already do 2.6 times as much unpaid domestic work than their partners; coronavirus is simply exacerbating the effect. Women are understood to carry a ‘mental load’, which involves not just information about their work and their friends, but also their family’s appointments, details about their children’s activities, and meal plans for the next week. Couples have so many more responsibilities due to the coronavirus crisis, whether that is home-schooling, organising care for grandparents, or simply planning and organising meals in order to leave the home as few times as possible. It is impossible for me to ignore that this responsibility is largely affecting women. Schiappa – France’s Secretary of State for Female-Male Equality – commissioned a study that discovered that nearly 60% of women are doing more housework than their counterpart during the crisis, whereas 20% of men responded the same. The mental load has increased significantly as a result of the pandemic and is not being recognised by many as a serious problem.
Studies have also shown that same-sex households do not have the same issue. In general, due to the absence of anticipated gender roles within the home, the burden of domestic work has been shared more equally between couples of the same sex. Hence, it is indicated that the patterns of domestic burden-sharing within families is forecasting a return of the traditional gender roles within heterosexual households.
This has wider implications for society beyond the home. Women who are spending significant amounts of their time and energy on domestic concerns such as home-schooling have less time and energy for their work. Since the beginning of campaigns for gender equality and equal treatment in the workplace, women have been encouraged to leave their domestic concerns at the door. However, the coronavirus crisis does not allow for this; as everyone is working from home, domestic concerns cannot remain outside the workplace. But it is exacerbating what women already understand to be an unfair work environment for those who carry the significant familial burden. Women who are struggling to balance the significantly larger weight of family during the crisis are evidently not able to commit to their job in the same way that male employees can. There are many fears that this could have a negative effect in the coming months and years on the gender make-up of managerial positions and promotions, potentially further exacerbating the gender pay gap.
Further, during the crisis, female unemployment has risen more than male. In the US, 55% of the individuals unemployed as a result of the pandemic are female, undoing the job gains that women had made in the nation in the past decade according to the National Women’s Law Center. Women are overrepresented in sectors such as hospitality, leisure, retail and beauty, all sectors which have been adversely affected by the lockdown. Hence, Close the Gap – a Scottish group for women’s labour market equality – stated that the pandemic would disproportionately affect women economically, particularly those in lower-paid roles, due to the existing inequalities in the marketplace. Once the pandemic is over, the subsequent economic environment is likely to further exacerbate this effect, leading some to argue that women’s lifetime earnings will never recover.
This brings us to the final question, what does this mean for the future? Much of what has been said here is very pessimistic. It is not to say that every hetero-sexual household, or every single mother, is experiencing the pandemic in this way. However, there is a pattern of behaviour which is evident in many households, not just in the UK, but across the globe.
I am hopeful that the predictions by experts will not become a reality. That the efforts of women are not going to be undermined by a pandemic. That the social progress that women have made in the past century was not an illusion, but a lasting change in social attitude. But, there are many groups across the world arguing that women are at risk of being pushed back into their traditional gender roles, undoing decades of social and economic progress. There is reason to be fearful of the consequences of the coronavirus crisis for gender equality.