Prepared by Daniel L. Carlson, University of Utah, and Richard J. Petts, Ball State University, for the Council on Contemporary Families symposium The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Future of Gender Equality (PDF).
The COVID-19 pandemic upended the lives of families around the world. Aside from its obvious and substantial costs to life and health, the pandemic created crises at both home and work – the consequences of which varied by gender. A new online symposium presented by the Council on Contemporary Families highlights what emerging research tells us about changes to family and work life during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, what these changes meant for gender inequalities during the pandemic, and what they mean for the future of gender equality in the US.
In the first briefing paper of this symposium, Liana Christin Landivar and Pilar Gonalons-Pons detail the depths and duration of pandemic closures to schools and daycares in the United States and the consequences these closures had for parents, care workers, and social inequalities. Their research shows that mothers left work at higher rates than fathers to attend to children’s care and educational demands, and this was especially acute for Black mothers and non-college educated mothers who faced prolonged school closures and/or lack of access to remote work. They note that childcare availability in the US has declined substantially since the pandemic (even before the recent end to federal subsidies) while costs have risen substantially, outstripping inflation. In addition to parents being negatively affected by the closure of schools and paid childcare, so teachers and childcare providers– most of whom are women of color – were also adversely affected. Childcare workers had twice the likelihood of losing their jobs as other workers during the pandemic and experienced a 50% decline in earnings. Moreover, poor pay and stressful working conditions led many teachers and care providers to leave their jobs permanently, producing substantial staffing shortages. Landivar and Gonalons-Pons conclude their brief by remarking that the pandemic damaged an already fragile care infrastructure in the US, increasing inequality moving forward by putting quality affordable care even further out of reach for poor families and increasing burdens on mothers.
Pandemic lockdowns portended an increase in domestic labor for families, which has the potential for increasing burdens on women who are conventionally responsible for this work. Using time-diary data, Liana Sayer and Joanna Pepin examine gender differences in parents’ time in housework and childcare during the pandemic with surprising results. They find that parents’ overall time in primary childcare, and the gender gap in primary childcare, remained unchanged during the pandemic. Though mothers increased their time in developmental childcare (e.g., education) early in the pandemic, they spent less time in physical care. By 2021, mothers had reverted to pre-pandemic childcare patterns. Gender gaps in childcare were substantially smaller when mothers were employed and fathers worked from home, suggesting that work-family polices like paid childcare leave that keep women attached to the labor force and job flexibility which provides fathers more time at home are likely to enhance equality in domestic labor. Though the gender gap in childcare remained virtually unchanged, the gender gap in housework and time with children narrowed slightly early in the pandemic as fathers did more housework and spent more time with kids. Nevertheless, change was fleeting as fathers’ time in housework and with children reverted back toward pre-pandemic levels by 2021, though time with kids continues to remain elevated.
In the third brief of our symposium, Jill Yavorsky, Yue Qian, and Liana Christin Landivar detail the costs of domestic labor demands on women’s paid work, earnings, and careers. They note that although official statistics suggest that women’s labor force participation has finally rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, this masks both the costs of the pandemic for women’s careers as well as educational gradients in these costs. Specifically, they highlight that labor force participation rates of non-college educated mothers have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. Moreover, the motherhood wage penalty substantially increased for college educated mothers during the pandemic, reversing twenty years of progress. Using evidence from survey experiments with managers, they note that the motherhood wage penalty may stem from discrimination related to mothers’ childcare issues.
The ability of college-educated mothers to remain attached to the labor force during the pandemic and for fathers to increase their time in childcare stems in part from remote work. In the next brief of this symposium, Wen Fan and Richard Petts show us that although remote work can reduce gender inequalities in some domains, it can exacerbate inequalities in others. Remote work allowed mothers to remain in their paid positions and helped to facilitate fathers’ involvement in domestic labor, but it was also associated with decreases in work hours for mothers (but not fathers). Moreover, they report that although disadvantaged women may prefer remote work, likely because of their limited access to affordable childcare, they accrue fewer benefits using it relative to fathers. The tendency of women to use job flexibility to dedicate more time to unpaid labor at the expense of their paid work, suggests that how remote work is used and by whom matters greatly for the future of gender equality.
The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a policy response on multiple levels, not least of which was helping families navigate illness, job furloughs, and the loss of care supports. Jeff Hayes and Elizabeth Peters provide an overview of leave policy in the United States and its benefits to individuals and families. They detail the aims and scope of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) — not only how it fell short of providing the care supports that families in the US needed during the pandemic but also how access to leave continued to be unequally distributed. They conclude with the observation that the COVID-19 pandemic shows us that unexpected events happen and a lack of comprehensive public policy exacerbates the negative effects of these events.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic created conditions that could feasibly reduce gender inequalities at home, and thus help mothers maintain their paid jobs, it appears that inequalities were instead exacerbated. Arielle Kuperberg, Sarah Thébaud, Kathleen Gerson, and Brad Harrington ask: why aren’t more fathers stepping up to shoulder a larger share of childcare and housework in families? Findings from their collective research suggest that entrenched cultural norms regarding masculinity, fatherhood, and breadwinning may be a root cause. Though Americans increasingly embrace men as caregivers, they value their breadwinning role even more. While men themselves desire to be more engaged husbands and fathers, they are skeptical about their abilities to achieve this in the face of workplace cultures that stigmatize and punish “leaning-out.” The power of these norms that encourage male breadwinning and discourage male caregiving are demonstrated both before and during the pandemic in the way out-of-work fathers (ages 30-50) living with their children categorize themselves as “retired” rather than “stay-at-home dads.”
The looming threat of COVID, in addition to substantial disruptions to work and family life, made the pandemic an incredibly stressful time. In the final briefing paper of the symposium, Daniel Carlson and Melissa Milkie discuss why gender disparities in mental health grew during the pandemic. Though mental health declined broadly for both men and women, it declined more precipitously among parents, mothers especially. Importantly, three years later, mental health has yet to improve in the US. Reviewing the literature and findings from their own research, Carlson and Milkie note that major stressors such as job loss, feelings of isolation, worry about COVID, and work-family conflicts were all more likely to be experienced by mothers. They argue that although the ability to be home with one’s family was likely a boon to well-being, it was outweighed in countries like the United States by work-family stress emanating from a distinct lack of policy support. In addition to policy, the authors also point out that gender disparities in mental health during the pandemic also likely stem from pervasive cultural norms for intensive mothers and ideal workers. As family managers, mothers likely bore the brunt of pandemic stress regarding family health and children’s learning. Yet, while mothers may have felt compelled to attend to these responsibilities, they nevertheless felt extreme guilt about the way family issues interfered with their jobs.
The briefing papers in this symposium demonstrate that gender inequalities grew across numerous domains during the COVID-19 pandemic, with potentially long-term consequences. They emphasize that the pandemic created conditions – such as school and daycare closures –in combination with the absence of supportive family care policies and the presence of workplace and gender norms that push care on women and paid work on men, that exacerbated pre-existing inequalities in the United States. At the same time, the authors point out that the pandemic revealed several avenues for how to reduce gender inequalities (e.g., fathers’ remote work; investment in care infrastructure; paid parental leave) and each paper provides clear prescriptions for how we can mitigate the damage inflicted by the pandemic. Such recommendations are vital if we truly hope to reduce gender inequalities in work and family life moving forward.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Daniel L. Carlson is Associate Professor of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah and Treasurer of the Council on Contemporary Families. He can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @DanielCarlson_1.
Richard J. Petts is a Professor of Sociology at Ball State University. His research focuses on the intersection of family, work, gender, and policy, and he serves on the Board of Directors of the Council on Contemporary Families. You can learn more about his research by visiting his website (www.richardpetts.com), following him on X (@pettsric), or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Future of Gender Equality Symposium
Symposium Video Series
Daniel Carlson and Richard Petts
Childcare Challenges During the Pandemic and Their Impact on Parents and Care Providers
Liana Christin Landivar and Pilar Gonalons-Pons
Pandemic Influences on Gender Inequality in Unpaid Work
Liana Sayer and Joanna Pepin
Mothers Continue to Experience Career Consequences Three Years into the Pandemic
Jill Yavorsky, Yue Qian, and Liana Christin Landivar
Can Remote Work Fuel Gender Equality? Evidence Shows Cause for Optimism but Challenges Remain
Wen Fan and Richard Petts
Leave Laws Support Equity
Jeff Hayes and Elizabeth Peters
Dads Home with Kids Peaked During The COVID-19 Pandemic – But Not for The Reason You Think
Arielle Kuperberg, Sarah Thébaud, Kathleen Gerson, and Brad Harrington
Work-Family Stressors, Gender, and Mental Health during COVID-19 and Beyond
Daniel Carlson and Melissa Milkie
The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. Our members include demographers, economists, family therapists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists, communication scholars, and other family social scientists and practitioners.
Founded in 1996 and based at the University of Texas at Austin, the Council’s mission is to enhance the national understanding of how and why contemporary families are changing, what needs and challenges they face, and how these needs can best be met. To fulfill that mission, the Council issues periodic briefing papers and fact sheets, which journalists can sign up to receive by writing to Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education, at email@example.com.
Read our blog CCF @ The Society Pages – https://thesocietypages.org/ccf/
November 14, 2023