Couples without children managed to sustain a more even share of housework after the onset of the pandemic than those with children, according to a new study examining the social impacts of the crisis.
The immediate impact of the lockdown in March last year did cause a rebalancing of the domestic chores between men and women. It led some to hope that one of the quirks of Covid’s arrival might be a boost to equality in the home.
This shift towards men taking up more of the slack soon faded for those couples with children, however, as schools and nurseries closed. In comparison, child-less couples were found to maintain more of an equal share of household duties.
Researchers said that the difference between the two might be partly down to a bias that sees women as being more affected by school closures. Mothers are potentially more likely to be interrupted while working to take on childcare and help with homeschooling.
The study by researchers in Bristol and Berlin used survey data covering more than 2,000 couples aged between 24 and 54. They examined how behaviour changed between March and September 2020, a period that included the first lockdown. Following that lockdown, the share of housework done by women initially declined for all types of couples, but more noticeably for those with a young child. It slightly increased in May and decreased again by June. However, by September 2020, those with young children, older children and no children diverged in terms of their sharing of the burden.
“Couples with school-age children and couples with a 0- to 5-year-old were already clearly retreating to a more traditional gender division of housework, though still below the reference levels before the national lockdown in March 2020,” the study states. “Couples without children living at home sustained a more equal share of housework.”
Susan Harkness, professor of public policy at the University of Bristol, said the study further dampened early hopes that there might have been some boosts to equality from the enforced social changes that the pandemic created. “There were attempts at a more positive take [on the impacts of the pandemic on housework], that maybe homeworking will be good for gender equality, and we’ll see some sort of positive takeaways,” she said. “Men could start doing the housework if they’re more likely to be at home.
“There was a short-term transition, but if you think about whether those changes persisted and affected gender norms, that’s not what we see. Fathers are more likely to get back into work more quickly than mothers, for example, so mothers can lag behind in terms of returning, post-Covid. When you close schools, you’re increasing the burden for women. And I think that’s a fairly clear story coming out of this pandemic.”
Previous official data has suggested that women were bearing the burden of homeschooling far more in the second lockdown compared to the first. The Office for National Statistics data found at the time that 67% of women and 52% of men were taking charge of their children’s education at home. More women reported that homeschooling was having a negative impact on their wellbeing, with 53% struggling compared with 45% of men. Another survey from earlier this year also suggested that girls and young women aged between 14 and 24 had been taking responsibility for the majority of household chores during the pandemic, leaving them less time to focus on their education.
Harkness said the research pointed to the stubbornness of gender divides, as reflected in the discrepancies in employment and pay going into the pandemic. Last year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed that in 2019 the average working-age woman in the UK earned 40% less than her male counterpart. It found that the earnings gap was about 13 percentage points lower than in the mid-1990s, but that over three-quarters of the reduction could be explained by the rapid increase in women’s educational attainment. Women of working age have gone from being five percentage points less likely to five percentage points more likely to have a university degree than men.