Tag Archives: Housework

Working and caring: the mental health toll of combining paid work and childcare during lockdown

Baowen Xue and Anne McMunn from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies  at University College London discuss new research showing  that women spent considerably more time than men undertaking housework and childcare during lockdown and the knock on for working parents’ mental health, particularly that of lone mothers. They explain how the analysis adds further weight to the Women’s Budget Group’s calls for a care-led approach to the recovery and say years of progress towards a more gender equal society will be derailed if nothing is done.  

There can rarely have been a more talked about start of the school year than that of 2020. Much has been said about the setbacks to children’s learning and the challenges that have faced parents juggling homeschooling, childcare, housework and working from home during lockdown. The indications from early research into this were that women were tending to bear the brunt of these extra caring responsibilities and that this was likely to have a detrimental effect on their mental health. Now new analysis of specially collected data from the early months of COVID-19 adds further evidence of this.

Lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a host of challenges for us all, not least an almost immediate increase in unpaid care work such as childcare and housework, particularly for families with young children. Research by a team at the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed that women continued to spend more time than men doing unpaid care work during lockdown

These early findings prompted major concern from a host of gender equality lobby groups and organisations, not least the Women’s Budget Group, who have called on the Government to prioritise and invest more in care provision to help address these inequalities.

Our research using data collected during the early months of lockdown confirms that women spent much more time on housework and childcare than men. Mental health was worse for the man/woman in a couple where he/she was the only one to adapt or reduce work hours for childcare. This suggests that fairness really matters in this context. 

For single mothers, having to change work patterns to juggle their job responsibilities  with childcare and homeschooling, things were even tougher. They exhibited considerably more symptoms of poor mental health and this finding stayed strong even when we accounted for their mental health pre-lockdown. 

COVID19 data

During April and May, a number of participants from the 40,000 household study Understanding Society took part in a special ongoing COVID19 study. As part of that they were asked a range of questions about how much time they spent each week doing housework and childcare/homeschooling. They were also asked whether they had had to adapt working patterns or reduce working hours due to childcare/homeschooling. On top of this they were asked a range of questions to gauge the state of their mental health.

On average, the women in the study spent about 15 hours per week in April and May doing housework compared with men who spent 10 hours. When it came to caring for the children and doing homeschooling, women spent nearly twice as much time on this as men – 20.5 hours per week in April increasing to 22.5 hours in May. For men the figure was 12 hours per week for each month.

Only 12 percent of working fathers reduced work hours due to caring responsibilities compared with 17 percent of working mothers.

Between couples, women undertook 64 percent of housework and 63 percent of childcare. Where parents were in a couple they tended not to reduce their working hours, although where this did occur it was more likely to be the woman than the man who made the adjustment (21 percent compared with 11 percent).

Continued gender inequality

Although this research is still under peer-review, we don’t anticipate the essential figures changing. The essential message from this research about how badly lockdown is affecting working parents, particularly single mothers, will also stay the same. 

Looking after children all day who would ordinarily be at school, with the additional responsibilities of homeschooling and extra cooking, cleaning and juggling the demands of a job in circumstances that are challenging have, for many, likely led to sleepless nights, lack of exercise, loneliness and feelings of being overwhelmed. It will undoubtedly have put a strain on relationships between couples and within families.

With children back at school, the load will have eased for some, but the stresses and worries of lockdown are by no means over. There are numerous reports of schools sending home whole classes of children to quarantine because of reports of or concerns over COVID cases among teachers and pupils alike. As we write this, cases of COVID19 are rising at an alarming rate, the Government has announced further tightening of restrictions and the coming Autumn and Winter months look challenging for everyone.

Even before the pandemic, our research showed that very little progress was being made towards a fairer division of housework and childcare and that women were still doing the lion’s share of cleaning, cooking and caring for the kids. 

Care-led recovery

The Women’s Budget Group, together with a number of other important voices in the gender equality debate, say a care-led recovery is what’s required in order to redistribute unpaid work between men and women more equally. 

At the launch of their recent report on the issue, the Group’s Dirtector, Dr Mary- Ann Stephenson, commented that a care- led recover will ‘ensure we all have time to care, and time free from care. It will allow men to spend more time with their loved ones and remove the burden of unpaid work from women so that it is shared equally amongst a household. Coronavirus has shown us that the economy is not working but for women the economy has never really worked and this pandemic has highlighted the stark impact it is having on women’s mental health. We can no longer continue this way and expect that women will just bear the brunt. We are the economy and it’s time the economy worked for us.’

At a global level, many concerns are being expressed that progress towards a more gender equal world is being hampered by COVID19. Governments everywhere must recognise that the pandemic is derailing hard fought for improvements and that lone mothers, yet again, are suffering most. Action is needed now to to help people get their lives back on track and keep the gender equality train moving forward. 

Gender differences in the impact of unpaid care work on psychological distress during the Covid- 19 lockdown in the UK is a Pre-Print in SOCARXIV by Dr Baowen Xue and Professor Anne McMunn from the ESRC International Lifecourse Centre in the Department of Epidemiology and Health at UCL. 

Woman doing housework

Domestic work – why do women still do the lion’s share?

A recent international report suggests men need to increase their time spent doing unpaid care work by a minimum of 50 minutes per day in order to do 50 per cent of the work. The report calls for bold measures to help all men do their fair share of this work by 2030 and thus promote gender equality. So what do we know about how modern couples in the UK divide unpaid domestic work and the drivers behind that? A new study from Anne McMunn at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at University College London investigates why greater workplace equality has not yet been matched by a more equitable division of labour at home.

Some studies suggest education is the key to equality within the home – that women with better education, and therefore greater earning power, are in a stronger negotiating position when it comes to housework.

But that theory doesn’t entirely hold water – it’s clear that even when women are better educated than their partners, they’re still likely to bear the heaviest burden when it comes to domestic labour.

Similarly, it’s been suggested that domestic work is divided according to time available – so when a male partner works longer hours, the female does more housework. But again, the reverse doesn’t hold true and women who work more hours outside the home still do more housework too.

Longitudinal study

We used the UK Household Longitudinal Study, which has surveyed around 40,000 households since 2010, to examine a number of hypotheses about why greater workplace equality hasn’t been matched by a more equitable division of labour at home.

Does a shared belief in equality make a difference? As men are often asked, in the modern world, to do more domestic labour, are their beliefs a driving factor? What is the role of education, if any, in how couples divide up these tasks? If one partner is resistant to sharing the work, is the other empowered by having a higher level of education?

Using opposite-sex couples in the study who were aged 16-65 and had answered the relevant questions, gave us a sample of 8,513 couples. We looked at four types of work to give us a full picture of the labour those couples did: housework, paid employment, childcare and adult care – for instance, caring for an older relative.We used a technique that allowed us to see what groups emerged from the data to see how contemporary British couples share or divide these different types of work.

We also categorized our couples according to their answers to a series of ideological questions – were they both similarly traditional, egalitarian or middling, or was one partner more egalitarian while the other was more traditional?

Education levels

Then we looked at their levels of education – were both equally educated, was the woman more highly educated or was the man more highly educated?

Very few of the couples shared work equally. In just six per cent of couples, the woman was the main earner while domestic tasks were shared quite evenly. These women were likely to be more highly-educated than their partners. In a further one per cent of couples  the man remained at home and did more than 20 hours’ domestic labour. Even in those cases, around two thirds of the women also did some domestic work.

However, these stay-at-home men were quite likely to be caring for an adult – four out of ten of them provided more than 20 hours’ care per week. Only 30 per cent of female-earner couples had children under 16 living at home, and of those just a quarter of men had the main responsibility for childcare. Men in this group did more housework than in some other groups, but they still did less than their partners.

Almost half (49 per cent) of couples were dual-earner couples in which both members of the couple tended to be employed full-time but these couples were less likely than traditional couples to have children at home.

Traditional divisions of labour

About 30 per cent of couples were traditional in the division of work with men working full-time and women not employed or working short hours. These couples tended to have dependent children at home and women in this couples did large amounts of housework, and in a small minority of women in these couples doing over 20 hours of housework per week.

A small group of couples (two per cent) also emerged in which women worked part-time and men worked very long hours at 60 hours per week or more. These women had more responsibility for care, and more for housework.

The third most common group, at 13 per cent, was a slightly older group of couples in their fifties or early sixties, in which neither were working full-time and there was little or no care responsibility. Women in these couples did relatively high levels of housework, suggesting that these couples may have previously followed a traditional gender division of work.

Those couples who didn’t have shared egalitarian beliefs – either both had traditional views or one did but the other didn’t – were more likely to fall into a more traditional work pattern.

What about education?

Men who were better-educated than their partners were more likely to fall into the traditional working patterns, and men with lower educational qualifications than their partners were more likely to stay at home. And these traditional patterns were even more likely to pertain when the man was more highly-educated and both shared traditional views.

So, education makes a difference, and so does a shared ideology. But it is important to note that very few men, in any category, did longer hours of domestic work than their female partner. So when it comes to housework and caring, gender equality remains rare and gender norms remain strong. 

Our beliefs may form a starting point for shaping our behavior, but that’s only a starting point, and not a solution. The ‘bold’ 50 minutes for 50 percent suggestion in the State of the World’s Fathers report, certainly seems to be grabbing the bull by the horns and, like our research, points clearly to the need for urgent change in terms of who does the daily care work in our homes. That is if we genuinely want a significant shift in power relations between men and women and to bring about gender equality.

Gender divisions of paid and unpaid work in contemporary UK couples is research by Anne McMunn, Lauren Webb, Elizabeth Webb and Amanda Sacker is published in the journal, Work, Employment and Society.