An unexpected upside to lockdown: men have discovered housework

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In the days before the pandemic, Melissa, a Salt Lake City-based nurse, had cut back on her hours in an effort to balance the demands of her work, her husband Richard’s work, running the household and caring for their two young children. But once she began to care for Covid-19 patients, Richard, a sales rep for a large food distributor, had to not only find a way to do his job remotely, but to take charge of the children while she was working 12-hour shifts.

And when Katherine Cargill, an emergency room nurse in Washington DC, moved into an Airbnb to quarantine from her family, her husband went from the occasional “helper” around the house to being 100% in charge of everything, including caring for, educating and entertaining a five-year-old and two-year-old twins. He had to take a leave from work to manage it all. “He’ll say, ‘I just feel so tired all the time and I don’t know why,’” Cargill laughed. “I know why.”

These families are part of what could be a grand experiment in gender roles brought on by the disruptions of the global pandemic. With families under lockdown, men are doing more around the home, and experts suggest this could lead to a lasting change in gender norms.

Women make up 76% of healthcare workers – about 80% of nurses, and close to 90% of home and personal care aides. Many of them have been forced to stay away from their families, leading male partners to step up at home. Could the pandemic operate like exposure therapy and, over time, lead to greater gender equality?

It’s a question not just for the families of health workers. Partners of other essential workers have also had to take on more of the load at home. And with more men than ever forced to work remotely, many, like Cargill’s husband, are finally beginning to see just how much work goes into running a home and caregiving.

We are researchers who have spent the past year analyzing new data and reporting on men and their experiences with and attitudes toward caregiving. It is too early to say with certainty how the pandemic will change the balance in the long run. But a series of new studies indicate that while women continue to bear more of the demands at home, men are doing more than they were before the pandemic. And that could lead to lasting change.

That’s the conclusion of one study on US families, published early in the pandemic. And as the crisis has dragged on, other research out of Canada, Germany, Turkey and the Netherlands has found that, while they haven’t closed the gap with women, men are doing more domestic work during the pandemic than they did before it. “Across the board, whether it’s dishwashing, laundry, childcare, reading to kids, physical care, we’re seeing a universal movement toward more egalitarian sharing,” said Dan Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Utah and author of a study showing men doing more housework and childcare than before the pandemic.

Carlson and his co-authors found that the share of parents saying they shared housework relatively equally jumped from 26% before Covid-19 to 41% during the pandemic. Similarly, couples reporting sharing the care of young children equally climbed from 41% to 52%. “I know people are writing that the pandemic will be bad for feminism,” Carlson said, “but I think it’s an opportunity, honestly.”

Traditional gender roles – the notion that men should be breadwinners and women primarily responsible for care and the work of the home – have been slowly evolving for decades. Since 1965, fathers have nearly tripled the amount of time they report spending weekly on childcare and housework (from just 6.5 hours a week to 18).

Men’s involvement in household labor is often “situational”, meaning they’ll pitch in or take over when they have no other choice. Men whose wives work opposite schedules from them or who work evening shifts and are home with the kids during the day tend to do more. And when men lost jobs in the Great Recession of 2008 and took on more work at home, many began to move away from the breadwinner identity and reported more meaning as active and engaged fathers.

That’s been Jay Lane’s experience. Furloughed and on unemployment since the beginning of the pandemic from his customer service job, he’s not only been a much more hands-on caregiver to his baby daughter – “I never realized how many diapers a baby can go through” – but he’s been there to watch her learn to crawl and take her first steps. “I want to make sure I keep building those bonds with her,” even after he goes back to work, he said, “so she can count on me as well.”

Yet mothers still spend about twice as much time on caregiving and household labor, even as they have rapidly increased the number of hours they work outside the home – and even when they’re the primary breadwinner.

Evolving workplaces, evolving norms

What keeps men from doing more at home? A key culprit is workplace culture. Many workplaces still expect men to live up to “ideal worker” norms, putting work first and acting as if they have no caregiving responsibility – something few women are able to do. In our nationally representative survey, published on Wednesday, we asked dads if they felt anything was keeping them from being the fathers they wanted to be. About one-third of fathers said yes. And the three major barriers they cited were a lack of money, a lack of time and the demands of their paid work.

When the pandemic forced Maya, a social scientist, and Neil, a consultant with a high-power firm, to isolate at home and share working and caring for their baby daughter, Neil’s firm just assumed Maya would scale back on work to be the primary caregiver. Neil had to push back and insist that his workload be cut to 50% – a risky move at a time of so much economic uncertainty. “I don’t think many men at his company would do what he did,” Maya said.

The pandemic is forcing workplaces and managers to normalize remote and flexible work for all workers – not just working mothers, as in the past – in ways that they have long resisted. “I’ve been forced to think and challenge the status quo notions I had,” said one manager in a hi-tech firm who now plans to allow his team to continue working remote and flexible hours.

That combination, of increased caregiving and workplace change, could help nudge the evolution toward gender equality. Men who take paid family leave at the birth or adoption of a child are much more likely to be active caregivers years later than men who did not have similar early caregiving exposure. And, preliminary results from another Carlson study show that men with flexible work arrangements tend to do more domestic labor than men who don’t. “If men’s schedules become a bit more flexible, and they’re more available to be engaged as parents, I think there’s some potential for lasting change,” said Jerry Jacobs, a sociologist who studies the gendered division of labor at the University of Pennsylvania.

To be sure, there is no guarantee of lasting change. Women are, in the short term, bearing far more of the demands of home and care, including homeschooling. Women, especially women of color, have been disproportionately hit by the massive layoffs of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. And, as businesses begin to reopen, without safe and accessible childcare, some worry that women will be forced to take on the bulk of caregiving and step away from work. That, they argue, could set gender equity back by decades.

In Utah, things aren’t perfect for Melissa and Richard. While she’s away at work, she doesn’t like how he relies more on screen time for the kids, and that he doesn’t tackle some of the harder chores without her, such as helping their three-year-old with his speech therapy exercises.

But they’re working on it. Richard’s boss has been supportive of his need for flexibility. And being home with the kids all day, every day has brought them closer. He’s downloaded a journaling app to his phone to capture the moments they share. And as Covid-19 cases begin to spike again in Utah, keeping Melissa at work, Richard is getting used to being in charge on the home front. “It stretches you thinner,” he said. “But I’m their father. That’s what I’m there for.”



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