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Gender wars in the time of COVID

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New research has found that women shouldered even more of the housework, childcare and school work burden during the COVID lockdown, but more men are coming to the (kitchen) table to lend a hand.

Lyn Craig has spent her academic career examining the chasm between Australian men and women when it comes to the time they spend doing paid work and unpaid domestic labour.

It is usually time-series work, examining the glacial pace of social change as government policy is shaped, shifted and defined by the expectation that men undertake long hours in the office while women try to meet the crushing demands of their first shift (at their part-time job) and second shift (looking after children and managing their homes).

To be honest, not much has really changed in the last two and a half decades Professor Craig has been charting gender differences, now as the University of Melbourne’s Professor of Sociology and Social Policy.

And then COVID hit.

Suddenly she found herself in the midst of a giant natural experiment.

From March, as the Government sanctioned a nation-wide lockdown and working from home became the dominant pattern for non-essential employees, traditional gender roles which had always fitted around patterns of employment outside the home were temporarily suspended.

Mum and dad were both in the house for the entire day. As were the kids.

For the first time ever, both parents were “technically” on call for everything from home-schooling to scrubbing the loo while they scrambled to meet their work deadlines.

It could have been the great equaliser.

But what actually happened to the domestic division of labour at the height of the “stay at home” period?

In a new study—which charts both how much time men and women devoted their time to their jobs, their homes and their children, as well as reports on their emotional responses to their situation—Professor Craig has some uncomfortable truths to tell.

Even when men were at home—released from the bonds of “presenteeism” as well as commutes to and from work—women continued to do more. Much, much more.

And, as most of us can attest from our hazy recollections of trying to supervise Year 5 long divisions while Zooming our way through our day jobs and putting a meal on the table at the end of it, there was actually far more work to do. In every sense.

“There is no doubt that this was an incredibly stressful period for most families,” said Professor Craig. “Incredibly stressful.”

In record speed, Professor Craig and her colleague Dr Brendan Churchill gathered data through the online survey Work and Care in the Time of COVID-19 which was fielded during lockdown between May and June and which garnered nearly 3,000 responses, including from couples who both held down jobs.

Their report, to be published in coming days in the international journal Gender Work and Organisation, shows that prior to the pandemic restrictions, mothers’ average daily time allocation to domestic labour and childcare was about 1 hour and 40 minutes more than fathers’. But during the restrictions, mothers’ combined time in these activities increased by 2 hours and 48 minutes to a total of 8 hours and 34 minutes per day, a rise of almost 50 percent.

Fathers also increased their domestic and caring activities by 2 hours and 12 minutes per day, taking them to 6 hours and 17 minutes per day, a rise of 53 percent. But even though they were doing more, they were still doing less than their partners.

Quite unsurprisingly then, the proportion of mothers dissatisfied with the division of labour in their locked-down households rose markedly with a third reporting that they felt they were doing “much more” than their fair share.

Professor Craig said this global natural experiment has provided rich soil for study.

“We got to see what happens when both men and women are stuck in the house trying to get everything done. And it turns out everyone worked longer and harder.” But the gaps between women doing more remained.

The most telling responses are the comments from harried mothers who suddenly found themselves the de facto in-house teacher, while their husbands cracked on with their jobs behind the closed door of the study while waiting for the sourdough to come out of the oven.

“Hello, 1963!”, “What is it 1950?? Don’t start me!!”, “I feel like it’s 1952 in here” were just some of the comments.

Others reported that household resources to work from home were being inequitably shared and that their male partner took prime space and claimed time for work while they juggled everything at once.

For example, “I work downstairs in our living area where I supervise our kid, my husband works upstairs with no supervision duties”, and “[I’ve] dropped everything to home-school the kids and keep the home running—and of course quiet—while [my] husband’s job rolls on via laptop in a closed off room.”

“…How could a contemporary female like myself, with feminist principles and innovative thinking capacity, still end up cohabitating with a caveman?” another respondent asked.

While the implications on workforce productivity and female output are still to be combed through, the anecdotal evidence suggests the division of labour may have strained more female careers than male.

Professor Lyndall Strazdins a clinical psychologist, gender, family and household studies expert at the Australian National University said her own observations of the impacts of COVID definitely painted a bleaker picture for women.

“The assumption that homeplaces can seamlessly become workplaces (while also being school places)—is gendered,” she says.

“For many, rather than this being more flexible it has resulted in ratcheting up stress and overload: an ‘infection’ between roles. The pandemic and its consequences have elevated and amplified inequality (along multiple lines), and for women, their ignored/invisible work has increased even while their contribution to the economy is more essential. I am seeing it even among women academics here… many are struggling with the stress and amplified guilt and anxiety, most recently I had a talented female PhD student resign because she could not manage it all. It is tragic.”

An even more sinister impact of the pandemic in terms of gender relations has been the spike in domestic tension and even violence.

Relationships Australia Canberra Practice Lead Counsellor Paula Honeykats told HerCanberra in a recent interview that the division of labour at home could account for some of the discord couples were experiencing. The counselling and mediation service has been under increasing demand throughout COVID.

She says that while it was not uncommon for couples to argue over who did the dishes or mopped the floors, now both are at home, previous assumptions that the woman would do a larger share of cleaning up might be ripe for challenging.

“We often find that it is those fights about household tasks that are often triggers for deeper concerns in the relationship,” she said.

But not all the news is bad, Professor Craig said some of her findings provide grounds for “cautious optimism” about post-COVID patterns of work and how couples negotiate domestic loads.

For many families, hunkering down at home has provided a welcome reprieve from the work/commute/commitment cycle that sees personal stress levels ratcheted to record highs. Most respondents found their subjective time pressure was lower during the pandemic than it was before and this has increased their overall satisfaction levels.

“I love having everyone at home and the slower pace of life. As a family, we are spending more quality time together and I am highly appreciative of that,” said one respondent.

And with most people managing to successfully churn through their paid workloads from home, the question now remains as to whether more men will seize the opportunity to embrace greater workplace flexibility. Men who previously may have risked being seen as uncommitted to their careers may feel emboldened to maintain more of a presence in the home—and if they can achieve this, those who want to be more connected to family life may have the chance, even while they maintain a traditional “breadwinner” status.

For many women, seeing their partner step up and do more around the house—even if it wasn’t as much as they might have been doing—was a step in the right direction.

“It’s fairer than it was before in terms of division of labour. Whether I manage to hold onto it once we return to normal remains to be seen,” said one respondent.

“The pandemic has really shifted things for our family. More discussions, acknowledgement of the work I was doing and a fairer division of labour” and “My husband has done more now than in 27 years together. It has actually brought us together,” said others.

And if nothing else happens, at least the men who reported during the lockdown that they were feeling stressed from having to do more around the house and juggle looking after kids while trying to nail that brief, can see life from their wife’s perspective. And maybe decide to change.

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