Dads as primary caregivers: The pandemic’s potential to reshape gender norms

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Michelle Obama will address the class of 2020, the special election for Katie Hill’s seat is set to provide some insight into November, and we examine the pandemic’s potential effect on gender equality. Have a nice Wednesday. 

– COVID’s division of labor. The Broadsheet has written a lot in recent weeks about how the coronavirus crisis is hurting women—from spikes in domestic violence, to the potential rollback of diversity initiatives, to the considerable share of women thinking of quitting their jobs. Today we have more promising news.

Research by the National Bureau of Economic Research last month examines how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact gender equality. Indeed, there are some sobering conclusions: overall, “the COVID-19 shock is likely to place a disproportionate burden on women.”

But the working paper also offers some hope: a few “counteracting forces,” it says, “may promote gender equality during the recovery from the current crisis.”

The “force” that caught my eye was the division of household labor, as delegated by the pandemic. Widespread lockdowns, in which children and “non-essential” workers are home, is requiring some fathers to shoulder additional childcare and home-schooling duties. In some cases, they’ve even become the primary care provider; 9% of U.S. households feature a wife who’s in a “critical occupation,” like a medical doctor, and a husband who’s not.

What will come of this kind of arrangement? The paper says past research on paternity leave provides some clues. In Spain and Germany, the introduction of paternity leave led to a persistent increase in fathers’ involvement in childcare.

You might recall that the division of household labor is a trouble spot when it comes to reaching equality, with the share of unpaid labor carried out by young men and women largely reflecting that of past generations; women still do too much at home, men still do too little. The disparity harms other aspects of women’s equality, with the extra time women spend on such duties contributing to gender pay and promotion gaps.

We’re years way from understanding the trickle-down effects of the pandemic, but the researchers are hopeful it’ll move the needle in this regard. “[E]ven while women carry a higher burden during the crisis,” the researchers write, “it is still highly likely that we will observe a sizeable impact of this forced experiment on social norms, and ultimately on gender equality, in the near future.”

History, for one, is on their side. They draw a parallel to World War II, “the last major shock to women in the labor market” that saw millions of women enter the workforce. The WWII experience “suggests that temporary changes to the division of labor between the sexes have long-run effects.”

Claire Zillman
[email protected]
@clairezillman

Today’s Broadsheet was produced by Emma Hinchliffe



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