Tag Archives: Equality

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.

Breastfeeding and the 24/7 economy: can evenings play a unique role?

Making it easier for women to get back to work after having children has been the ambition of successive UK Governments. A £5m career break returner scheme was launched in the budget just a few weeks ago, with the Prime Minister telling the parenting website Mumsnet that it was neither fair nor did it make economic sense, for women trying to get back into the workplace to find the doors closed to them. At the same time, the Government has acknowledged the considerable benefits to babies and mums of being breastfed. So what does this drive to get mums back to work mean for them, particularly if their job isn’t a standard 9-5 Monday to Friday affair? Afshin Zilanawala from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies has been looking at what working evenings, nights or weekends might mean for mums and children when it comes to breastfeeding to see if this should be factored into our thinking around helping women back to work.

In the last 50 years or so, many more women with children have gone back to work after having their children. The same time period has seen a huge growth in the service sector and it is these two economic changes, which have been credited to the growing phenomenon of nonstandard work i.e working evenings, nights, or weekend shifts. A 2008 report showed that nearly a third of UK employees work evening, night or rotating shifts and that 1/5 work on the weekends. About a quarter of employed mothers work evenings, nights, or rotating shifts and about 18% of these mothers work on the weekends.

In that time, anecdotal information around the benefits and importance of breastfeeding to a child’s early development and mother’s mental and physical health have been supported by an ever growing and increasingly compelling body of evidence. In short, children who are breastfed develop physically and mentally more quickly and are less likely to develop infections or be obese, whilst mums are less likely to suffer post natal depression or develop breast/ovarian cancer.

Given all that, it would be useful for policy makers and parents to better understand whether any particular work patterns or schedules are more or less associated with women breastfeeding and for us all to get to grips with how working nonstandard hours may complicate work and family life, and may constrain time with children that relates to their health and development. That’s where this research comes in.

Dual potential: opportunities or costs?

When I set out to look at this, it wasn’t easy to imagine a straightforward answer to this question of say whether working evening shifts might be more or less associated with a mum having started to breast feed or how long she breastfed compared with someone who worked weekends. There seemed to be a dual potential for each shift to make it harder or easier depending on how you looked at it.

Evening or night work might make it difficult to schedule consistent breastfeeding patterns. However, at the same time, these shifts might allow for dad or another caregiver to supply pumped milk if a mum is working odd hours.

Using information collected as part of the Millennium Cohort Study, which has followed the lives of children born at the turn of the century, we were able to look at more than 17,000 mothers and their children.

Mums were asked if they had ever tried to breastfeed and, if so, for how long. From this and informed by the UK infant feeding guidelines at the time of the survey, which recommended exclusive breastfeeding for 4–6 months, we were able to create 2 month bands for different breastfeeding duration e.g. ‘intermediate’ (terminated breastfeeding after 2 months but before 4 months).

When their babies were 9 months old, mothers who were working provided information about the sorts of shifts they worked and how often they worked them.

Breastfeeding and work

Nearly 70 per cent of mothers breastfed their child. Thirty percent of them stopped breastfeeding before 2 months and one-third breastfed for at least 4 months. About half of mothers were not working at the time of the survey, nearly 30 per cent were working a standard shift and one in five was working nonstandard shifts.

Looking more closely at nonstandard work, it was possible to see the prevalence of the different types of shifts.

An interesting thing to emerge when we looked just at work patterns and breastfeeding was that women who worked evenings were 70 per cent more likely than women who were unemployed to have breastfed at all. They were also more likely to breastfeed than women who worked other non standard shift patterns i.e. night or weekend shifts.

Women who worked evening shifts were also more likely than their unemployed counterparts to continue breastfeeding across all the different ‘duration bands’ including the longest. They were still also more likely than their peers doing other non standard patterns of work to be breastfeeding i.e. night, weekend and overnight shifts.

Evenings and breastfeeding

So what is it about evening work that appears to be ‘compatible’ with starting and continuing to breast feed (or vice versa?) Perhaps mothers working evening shifts have positive breastfeeding experiences and so keep on breastfeeding and working. Perhaps supportive and flexible working arrangements influence the decision to breastfeed for longer. Evening schedules perhaps have a less disruptive effect on sleep patterns than irregular or night shifts, leaving women feeling more able to manage a job and caring for/breastfeeding their children.

So perhaps evening work schedules have something of a unique role to play in child and maternal health when it comes to helping women back to work without losing the many benefits for them and their children of breastfeeding. There’s a lot more that needs disentangling here, but, nevertheless, food for thought!

Maternal Nonstandard Work Schedules and Breastfeeding Behaviors is research by Afshin Zilanawala and is published in the Maternal and Child Health Journal.