Were women’s domestic burdens eased by Covid-19 lockdowns? And will the pandemic have a lasting effect on household work-sharing?

In October 2020, WorkLife featured research  from Baowen Xue and Anne McMunn showing how badly the pandemic was affecting the mental health of working parents, especially single mothers. The researchers expressed concerns over the reversal of pre-pandemic trends towards a more gender equal society and supported calls from the Women’s Budget Group for a care-led recovery. Now a team of researchers from the University of Bristol-led Equal Lives project has gone on to look at the way domestic work was shared during and after lockdown in 2020. Susan Harkness from the University of Bristol and Aleja Rodriguez Sanchez from Humboldt University in Berlin explain what they found and the implications for this hard-hit group.

Covid-19 has confined whole families to their homes and has changed the way domestic work is shared, but those with young children have seen a quicker return to the way things were pre-lockdown, something that indicates a ‘re-traditionalisation’ of roles for this particular group of hard-hit women.

The first Covid-19 lockdowns in the Spring of 2020 threw parents and children into unfamiliar situations, with whole families working or studying from home. So, for opposite-sex couples, what did this mean for traditional gender divisions of household chores? Were women’s greater domestic burdens altered by having both parents at home? And what happened as the lockdown started to ease in the Summer of 2020?

The Equal Lives team set out to answer these questions using data gathered by the Understanding Society COVID-19 study in April, May, June and September 2020. Understanding Society is the largest longitudinal household panel study of its kind, and follows a sample of UK households: from April 2020 its participants were asked to complete monthly web surveys about the impact of the pandemic on their lives.

Responses from people of working age who were in opposite-gender relationships which continued throughout the study period – provided a final sample size of just over 2000 couples.

Lockdown shocks

These couples were asked about the gender division of housework during the first lock-down, during April 2020. This was compared with information collected from pre-lockdown surveys, carried out during 2019. They were also asked whether those changes persisted when the first lockdown eased. We compared those with no children at home to those with children of various ages.

What we saw was that, as with other types of shock which affect the division of labour, couples tended to adapt. Initially, there was a moderate amount of gender rebalancing in the sharing of domestic work, but this was dependent on the number and age of the couple’s children. However, by September 2020 the old gender divisions had largely been re-established. 

Overall the findings showed that both men’s and women’s paid working hours reduced substantially in the Spring of 2020 but recovered by September. During the Spring lockdown, around a third of both male and female respondents were employed but working from home; a figure which reduced to just under a quarter by September. Around one in five women and one in seven men were furloughed in the Spring, but this dropped to fewer than one in 20 by September.

Overall, women’s share of housework fell from 65 per cent pre-Covid to 60 per cent during the first lockdown. By September this rose back to 62 per cent. Both men and women increased their hours of domestic work during lockdown – from 13 to just under 15 for women, and from six and a half to nine and a half for men. 

Childcare burdens

When the respondents were split into three groups – those who had no children living at home, those who had children under the age of five and those who had older children – marked differences emerged. 

For couples without children at home, women’s share of domestic labour fell during the Spring and continued to fall after the Summer. Though these women still did more domestic work than their partners, their input did not return to pre-Covid levels.

For those with children aged 6-15, the drop in women’s share of housework was partially reversed by September, but the bounce back was less marked and they were still doing less than before the pandemic. 

But for those with children under five, the drop in women’s share of housework was reversed completely by September despite being more marked than that of other groups in Spring.

Family dynamics 

So what do we make of this? In terms of family dynamics, the lockdown may have had more lasting effects for some families than for others. Fears that advances in gender equality could be reversed during the pandemic were more real for those with very young children, who were much less able to keep themselves busy and who were not offered online education.  

One important reason for the division of labour during lockdown was men’s and women’s working hours – women with young children tended to reduce their paid working hours more in order to take on the increased burden of care. 

Our study highlights the need for a nuanced perspective on changes to family life during the pandemic and further research is needed to look at whether extended family networks were able to alleviate the increased care burden for some families, and at how the pandemic affected the mental health of women with and without children. Additionally, it would be useful to look at how different countries’ lockdowns might have affected families differently. 

Gendered division of housework during the COVID-19 pandemic: temporary shocks or dura-ble change? is research by Alejandra Rodríguez Sánchez, Anette E. Fasang and Susan E. Harkness and is published by Demographic Research.