If your social media feed is anything like mine, your coronavirus timeline might be filling with adorable pictures of fathers making bread and homeschooling their kids. Are men finally pulling their weight at home?
Consider the disparity. Before the COVID-19 crisis hit — when schools were running, nursing homes could take family visits, and the United States was at almost full employment — women in the U.S. spent an average of more than two hours on household chores and 45 minutes caring for others each day. Men spent an average of roughly half that time on each. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild famously called the phenomenon where women added hours of household work to their formal employment women’s “second shift.”
Despite what you might see on Instagram, there is no evidence that this gender disparity in household labor is narrowing. Research shows that if anything, the gap is likely widening, even when both parents are at home. With schools and much of the service economy closing down, households now have even more work to do at home. It disproportionately falls on women’s shoulders.
When it comes to inequality at home — as with inequalities in health care, access to financial support, employment protections like sick leave, or job security — the COVID-19 crisis is a great magnifier, laying bare these disparities and exacerbating them.
Polls show that women are more likely to report their daily lives having been “disrupted a lot” since the crisis began, and that they are most responsible for child care, housework, and homeschooling. Survey data from April show more mothers reporting increases in housework and child care than fathers, and estimates that mothers working from home spend nearly six hours doing child care and homeschooling on a “typical” work day while men spend 4½.
For women with full-time jobs, this shift takes a toll. In the academic ivory tower, scientific journals report unprecedented declines in women’s, but not men’s, publication submissions.
“When it comes to inequality at home, the COVID-19 crisis is a great magnifier, laying bare these disparities and exacerbating them.”
In some cases, women report economic reasons as justification for their doing more household work (either because she makes less money than her partner, or her job is more flexible — all well-known patterns that result from structural gender inequalities in the labor market). More generally, however, decades of research show that it is power dynamics within couples, fed by gendered expectations, that guilt women into doing more housework and care work, and make it easy for men to get away without chipping in. This work is still viewed fundamentally as women’s work. Men use strategies — from ignorance to subtle insinuation, even domestic violence — to make women do it.
The work of caring for one another, of feeding, cleaning, clothing, and sustaining daily life, never stops — not even in a global health crisis. If anything, as we’re seeing now, it increases. While the next business trip can wait, the next feeding of a 6-month-old cannot. This is what social scientists call social reproduction work — it makes all other work possible. This essential work is at the core of our economy, yet our economy systematically ignores it. Economics professor Jen Cohen at Miami University summarized it in a viral tweet: “The economy isn’t closed, people. The economic activities we’re doing – child care, cooking, cleaning etc – just aren’t considered valuable by most economists.”
This is true at home and also in the labor market, where race inequality further stratifies this feminized work. Black and Latina women are disproportionately represented in front line essential jobs, like home care workers or supermarket cashiers, and white women constitute the majority in the higher-income essential occupations, such as registered nurses and nurse practitioners.
Essential work, then, is associated with economic disadvantage and social disempowerment. That is why those who can afford to rely on others do it. Other economic activity thrives while — and in part through — getting a free (or very cheap) ride on the essential work it depends on.
We cannot eliminate or substantially reduce essential work. But we can – and must – reorganize it to be more fairly distributed, and adequately compensated and supported.
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We must raise the wages and uplift the rights and status of all essential workers. Philadelphia’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which went into effect May 1, sets an example for doing so. Empowering and supporting essential workers’ organizing for living wage, labor rights, and safety on the job is crucial to change the economic consensus that devalues essential gendered work. This must be done as we challenge gender-based tropes that funnel this work onto women’s shoulders, and as we build public institutions to encourage collective responsibility for essential work, like paid care leave and affordable, high-quality childcare and long-term care.
That’s how we can guarantee that doing essential work, whether at home or on the job, is no longer a path to poverty, but to flourishing.
Pilar Gonalons-Pons is an assistant professor in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.