Even if both parents work full-time, women have now become “the chief operating officers of their households.” And, as a national poll shows, women are more likely than men to say their lives have been disrupted because of the coronavirus.
Plus, women are on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic because they constitute almost 80% of health care workers in the U.S.
First, as the study points out, past recessions have typically hurt men more than women. This one is different. That’s because the COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant effect on occupations with high female employment shares, such as restaurants and hospitality
Second are the child care implications, with schools and day care closed. Even without a pandemic, mothers working outside the home are four times as likely as fathers to say they must take time off work and stay home if their children get sick.
Now, when both parents are working from home, “there seems to be an expectation that women will take on more of managing the household—especially if kids are home—in order to create a better work environment for the male partner,” notes Jennifer Griffith, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of New Hampshire (Griffith was not involved in the study). This may then, Griffith notes, make the gender gap in pay and promotion worse.
And single mothers must handle the child care demands on their own. (Single fathers face this issue as well, but almost six times as many children live only with their mother compared to their father).
The pandemic makes clear that “our economy is premised on a system of childcare,” points out Naomi Schoenbaum, a GW Law professor. She adds that when that system isn’t working, “women will be especially burdened.”
Third, many domestic violence victims are sheltering-in-place with their abusers. And while child custody arrangements during a time of COVID-19 are more complicated for everyone, domestic violence victims who share children with an abuser are likely involved in even more difficult questions. “I’m hearing more and more from women whose abusive ex-husbands are refusing to observe social distancing or hygiene while their children go back-and-forth between households,” observes Joan Meier, a GW Law professor and founding director of GW’s National Family Violence Law Center. She adds that most courts have not yet authorized parents to withhold their children to comply with state health orders, if that would conflict with a custody/visitation order.
But COVID-19 may ultimately create some positive changes. Here are two that the paper singles out.
First, with more workers trying to be productive at home, employers are being forced to face the particularly acute child-care needs of their employees. This has resulted in increasingly flexible work schedules and improved telecommuting options. People are discovering that effective video conferencing can lead to actual connection, overcoming reservations about the technology as it becomes more familiar. If these flexible work schedules and telecommuting practices continue after the pandemic, then this may help women even more than men because they remain the ones disproportionately likely to be responsible for child care.
Second, even though many women will take on more responsibility for child care, so may some men. Accordingly, “a reallocation of duties within the household is likely to have persistent effects on gender roles and the division of labor.”
There are additional, potentially positive long-term consequences as well. The pandemic is focusing attention on the lack of national paid family and sick leave and on the disparities in who has access to those types of leave: low-income workers are least likely to have paid family leave, for example. The newly-adopted Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the C.A.R.E.S. Act include both short-term paid sick leave benefits as well as longer-term paid family leave policies. That may provide a model for the future.