The choices working parents make now will shape the future for women

What flexible working looks like now.
What flexible working looks like now.
Image: Reuters/Bernadett Szabo
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Since we’re still in the thick of the Covid-19 crisis, it’s not clear what will be the long-term consequences of going through it. Changes for the better—to make society fairer—are still possible. But the pandemic has been far from a leveler.

Among other areas, this is becoming clear in gender roles. School closures mean kids are at home, with their needs for play, meals, attention, and education crashing into the fine balance that allowed many households to function. And in plenty of cases, the new needs have exposed inequalities that already existed, but were mitigated by outside forces like paid childcare, family support, and domestic help.

In March and April 2020, scientists from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Zurich set out to study inequality in the impacts of coronavirus, via surveys of more than 20,000 people in Germany, the US, and UK. Their findings focus on education and gender, and conclude—perhaps unsurprisingly, given the vulnerability of some in these groups—that women and generally people with less education have suffered the biggest setbacks. But their findings also contain some fascinating nuance on gender roles, some of which the researchers themselves can’t explain.

In the “new normal,” women are doing the bulk of the childcare. This comes as no surprise: They did the bulk of it in the “old normal” as well. Ever since women entered the workplace in large numbers, back in the 1950s, they have done their paid work—progressing toward equality, though not having fully achieved it yet—while continuing, on average, to be the primary managers of their households, the main carers of their children, and the person to whom the bulk of the domestic chores typically fall.

In the recent study, women in every income band did more childcare than similarly-earning men; the greatest disparity was for women who didn’t work or were relatively low earners. 

When it comes to homeschool, the numbers skew surprisingly the other way. The higher-earning the woman, the more likely she is to be doing a larger proportion of homeschooling than men who earn a similar amount.

Christopher Rauh, an economist from Trinity College Cambridge and one of the researchers, said that while he was not at all shocked by the uneven distribution of childcare, he was somewhat surprised that the homeschooling difference was so stark in higher income bands. Homeschooling, after all, is new—related to childcare, but not exactly the same as it. The need to suddenly become teachers, during this pandemic, has sideswiped the working patterns of mothers and fathers alike.

High-earning women are of course not necessarily working any harder than those in lower income bands, but they’re likely to be in positions of greater responsibility, with people to manage and clients to satisfy. Are high-earning mothers choosing this division, defaulting to it, finding that it’s happening without knowing why—or something else?

“In normal times, one doesn’t have the homeschooling part, but one also finds that more educated women invest more time in their children,” Rauh said, so perhaps this trend explains the distribution of new responsibilities. (Higher-earning women are statistically likely to be better-educated than those with lower incomes. But they’re also likely to be in positions as demanding as high-earning men.)

Another wave of the same study is in progress, which will seek to find out whether things have shifted at all since the first weeks of having kids at home. It could show, for example, that women taking on more of the homeschooling was a knee-jerk reaction which has since settled into a more equitable pattern. It also could show the opposite, with new habits, likely based on existing social norms, calcifying to become new norms. 

Fair game?

As a barrister working in London, Alice—who preferred we publish only her first name—was the higher earner in her marriage. When childcare and school were canceled for her kids, ages three and six, Alice and her partner worked out a rota where each tried to fulfill their full-time work responsibilities, and took shifts of childcare.

For three weeks they ran themselves into the ground, working late into the nights, while Alice found herself the default organizer of homeschool activities for her older child, distractions for the younger, meal planning, and a host of other tasks and considerations that has often been referred to collectively as the “mental load,” and which women tend to shoulder.

It wasn’t sustainable. Alice pared back her work. Her husband’s employment necessitates virtual meetings with people in other geographies, so he now works two shifts, at the beginning and end of the day, while she has a single, shorter shift in the middle.

Pre-pandemic, any childcare needs that rose during work hours always fell to Alice, she says, because—like most barristers in the UK—she’s self-employed, so the flexibility was there. Although of course working less means she earned less.

“This is the thing: It’s always me because I don’t have an employer…The number of times that my husband would do a thing in work time with the children, it would have to be because I had something that I could not get out of, like a court hearing—because otherwise it’s just really easy for me to block a day out in my diary,” she says.

Alice describes herself as a feminist with a competitive streak that drives her professionally. But the circumstances of parenthood have often thwarted that drive, in a way that would be familiar to many mothers. When the couple had their first child, Alice was earning more than her husband, but by the time she got back from maternity leave, he was the higher earner. She had just built back up to earning slightly more after returning from having their second child. Then the pandemic struck. She’s now working at about 50% of her full-time professional capacity, she estimates. It’s not fair, she says, but it’s the best they could manage.

As the couple talked through the issues created by lockdown, they modified their arrangements. Alice’s husband now does the majority of the homeschooling, and they share cooking equally, while Alice tends to do a lot of the tidying.

“That phenomenon of mental load reared its head again” in the conversations they’ve been having, Alice says. “He’s doing a lot of the tasks now, but I think I did the worrying.”


In May, the New York Times published a survey of 2,200 adults, run by the survey company Morning Consult, asking who in a partnership did more of the homeschooling. The poll unveiled a vast disconnect: 45% of dads thought they did most of that work, while only 3% of women agreed that their spouse shouldered the bigger load.

It’s “fascinating that men and women are reporting this differently. Obviously, the lived experience is different,” says Allyson Zimmerman, executive director for EMEA at Catalyst, a global nonprofit focused on gender equality in the workplace. The disparity between what is actually taking place within families, and what each partner thinks is happening, is an alert to revisit all the assumptions we’re making and, if necessary, rebalance our arrangements.

The pandemic is“highlighting what we’re already seeing, what’s already inequitable,” Zimmerman says. “So not only those social inequities [but also] the structural inequities, of what is valued, and who is valued.” She’s not only referring to gender here, but to many and various complex global inequalities that the pandemic is making starker, like higher death rates among people with low incomes and people of color.

For women who work, changing the current trends necessitates an interaction of different forces, she suggests. It requires that companies acknowledge the need for flexibility for all their staff, not just the women. It requires men to demand more of their employers, in order to shift the norms of what employees are rewarded for. (A 2011 Catalyst report discovered, for example, that men were rewarded professionally for working long hours, while women were not.) And it requires that couples be willing to negotiate until they reach an agreement that’s truly fair, versus one that works until an unexpected development (the need for an early school pickup; a global pandemic) exposes the disparity that’s been there all along.

The concept of women who “have it all” was long ago replaced by the acknowledgement that many women simply “do it all”—or at least try to. The unfair divisions of domestic labor are well documented; plenty of women are aware that it happens, and many are enraged. That hasn’t yet been enough to change the paradigm, though. Globally, research from the World Economic Forum shows, we’re moving toward gender equality at a snail’s pace. In the WEF’s latest estimate, we’ll get there in another 99.5 years.

An opportunity

It’s possible, Catalyst’s Zimmerman argues, that this could be the moment for a new paradigm. But if we’re to create one, there are a lot of things to solve. High-earning women doing much more of the homeschooling is one small detail in a picture that’s becoming ever clearer, of women specifically and adversely affected by this crisis.

Unlike previous recessions, which have often disproportionately affected men, typically in industries like manufacturing and construction, the pandemic-led recession is hitting industries in which women are over-represented, like retail and hospitality, meaning they’re losing jobs at a faster clip.

But it’s not just industry affecting the outcome for women. Rauh and his fellow researchers—economists Abi Adams-Prassl and Marta Golin of Oxford and Teodora Boneva at the University of Zurich—also studied layoffs controlling for industry, and found that women are being fired more than men regardless of their field. “Women are more likely to have lost their job, everything else being equal,” Rauh said. 

This, and potentially other sources of stress, mean women are also suffering more mentally. In a separate study based on surveys of 8,000 Americans, the same researchers found a fall in mental health in US states under lockdown that could be entirely accounted for by women. The researchers controlled for having kids at home or other caring responsibilities, income loss, and local Covid-19 deaths. No single factor explained the drop, which resulted in the existing mental health gender gap widening by 66%. Women are just feeling worse, and so far, we can’t explain why. 

During the coronavirus pandemic, many have observed, female heads of state have distinguished themselves—from Germany to Taiwan, New Zealand to several Nordic countries. One reason for this conclusion could be that, for the first time in history, there are simply enough female heads of state simultaneously for us to be able to look at them and draw any kind of comparison to their male counterparts.

This crisis is exposing our world’s extremes, the macro and the granular, in the labor market and in our own households. It’s forcing us all to own the choices we are making as individuals, and as societies. And maybe, it will force some of us to change.