It´s no secret that globally, women assume the majority of unpaid labor within the household; women also spend more hours on paid and unpaid labor combined than men do. This status quo has only been magnified by the global pandemic, which has overburdened the care economy to the brink. UN Women has emphasized that, “With children out of school, intensified care needs of older persons and ill family members, and overwhelmed health services, demands for care work in a COVID-19 world have intensified exponentially.”
‘Normal’ was not sustainable for many
The impact of the pandemic is undeniable. However, calls to ‘return to normal’ fail to adequately acknowledge that for many, ‘normal’ – or rather life and dynamics before the spread of COVID-19 – was never a sustainable modus operandi. Before the pandemic, women in Latin America spent about three times as many hours as men on caregiving and unpaid domestic work. Support from male partners before COVID-19 was limited and constrained, even where fathers desired to become more deeply involved within childcare. Paternity leave, where it exists as a public benefit, has long been far less than what is allocated for mothers, and a combination of social stigma as well as personal biases/choices, meant that most fathers took only a portion, if any. Women’s incomes tended to be lower than men’s, and they are more likely to be either employed in sectors with higher layoffs, meaning that many families who require additional care support must make the difficult decision of prioritizing the paid work of men to sustain the family and to meet the care duties associated with lock-down.
We cannot, nor should we go back to this ‘normal’
We must use the pandemic to propel the region to move forward. In June 2020, Promundo and Oxfam launched the #HowICare Project to gather data from the US, Canada, UK, Philippines, and Kenya to better understand the realities, difficulties, and disparities of providing care during the COVID-19 crisis. From the data, it is obvious that the gendered distribution of unpaid care and domestic work has not dramatically shifted, even as stay-at-home orders mean that work has multiplied, and support mechanisms have diminished. However, the data calls our attention to two opportunities:
- While COVID-19 has placed even more care responsibilities on women, it has also removed some of the structural barriers for men’s uptake of domestic work as they begin to work from home, presenting an opportunity. Male respondents reported that they are taking on more unpaid care work: In Canada and Great Britain, 36% of men reported that they are increasing the amount of time spent on domestic work; 64% of men in the US, and 65% of men in the Philippines reported the same. It is important to note that while men report spending more time on unpaid care and domestic work, participants largely agree that women are doing more of it, proportionately. Within Latin America and the Caribbean, it’s been less clear whether men have taken on any additional hours of domestic labor, reinforcing the need to develop targeted messaging towards men around the benefits of taking on more work.
- The survey identifies those groups who have experienced the highest rates of additional hours of domestic work and care, and therefore, where we must direct our efforts:
- Families with children and those living in intergenerational households;
- Racial and ethnic minority families in the US and Canada (they were also more likely to have reported giving up or reducing paid work than white respondents);
- Single parents and parents living in poverty;
- Women in essential care roles.
It is incumbent upon governments to not just address the gendered impacts of COVID-19, but to also use an intersectional lens, to ensure that those that are being impacted the most are not lost in the narrative.
What does this mean going forward?
Many governments have implemented stopgaps to address some of the impacts of COVID-19 on caregiving. For instance, social protections in LAC were elevated and extended to offset some of the economic impacts, but these remain one-off rather than long-term, and may neglect to take a gender lens. Going forward, the following measures will be necessary to support individuals and families to care for themselves and for each other:
- Governments need to demonstrate their commitments to the value of care by ensuring safe, secure, and fully subsidized childcare facilities, alongside national policies on fully paid, equal and non-transferable family leave and flex-time to allow caregivers to take time off without having to worry about losing their jobs or incomes. In addition, social protection programs such as universally available cash transfers can provide a lifeline to those families who may be thrown into poverty as a result of the mitigation efforts. These policies should pay particular attention to the needs of families with a higher care burden; racial and ethnic minority families; single parents and parents living in poverty; women in essential care roles, and those living in multiple of these realities.
- Employers should not wait for government legislation to act. Employer-provided flexible working hours, tele-work options, and paid leave (including paid parental leave, sick and family leave), should be introduced and bolstered with employers actively encouraging their male employees to take them on, either through supportive awareness building or through modeling by senior members.
- Governments, employers, trade unions, education, civil society, and media should all promote a culture shift toward valuing care as a key foundation to the economy, society, and environmental sustainability by challenging narratives that women alone bear the responsibility of care, and promote a whole-of-family approach to care. Any outreach should include messaging that while we are all taking on more, men should aspire to not only do more, but to aspire to share the work equally.
All of us have a role to play in creating the new normal – to break the stereotypes and shift the norms around care that have held women back, and which have perpetuated gender-based discrimination and inequality; to transform the way that families connect with one another; and to re-build our government and support systems with an aim to truly care for one another.
Inequality in time use must be met by individual men themselves not only taking on their fair share of household labor and childcare but by encouraging their peers to do so as well; by becoming advocates within their own workplaces and governments, for change. Fathers and all men who care must take this opportunity to not only be present at home, but to also see the value of the unpaid care work, and to endeavor to share it equally.