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Who did the housework in Lockdown Britain, and what happened next?

Coronavirus 1

New study finds we did become a little bit more egalitarian during Lockdown 1 but many women ended up doing more than their fair share again once restrictions eased

The study led by our ESRC Research Centre on Micro-Social Change (MiSoC) researcher, Professor Susan Harkness, used data from Understanding Society COVID-19 study in April, May, June and September 2020 to look at how couples divided responsibilities in the home. Responses from people of working age who were in opposite-gender relationships - which continued throughout the study period – provided a final sample size of just over 2000 couples.

Lockdown shocks

These couples were asked how the gender division of housework changed in the first lockdown of March 2020 when compared to pre-lockdown surveys carried out between 2009 and 2019. They were also asked whether those changes persisted when the first lockdown eased, comparing those with no children at home to those with children of various ages. Initially, there was a moderate amount of gender rebalancing in the sharing of domestic work, but this was dependent on the number and age of the couple’s children, and by September 2020 the old gender divisions had largely been re-established. Overall the findings showed that both men’s and women’s paid working hours reduced substantially in the Spring of 2020 but recovered by September. During the Spring lockdown, around a third of both male and female respondents were employed but working from home; a figure which reduced to just under a quarter by September. Around one in five women and one in seven men were furloughed in the Spring, but this dropped to fewer than one in 20 by September. Overall, women’s share of housework fell from 65 per cent pre-Covid to 60 per cent during the first lockdown. By September this rose back to 62 per cent. Both men and women increased their hours of domestic work during lockdown – from 13 to just under 15 for women, and from six and a half to nine and a half for men.

Childcare burdens

But when the respondents were split into three groups – those who had no children living at home, those who had children under the age of five and those who had older children – marked differences emerged. For couples without children at home, women’s share of domestic labour fell during the Spring and continued to fall after the Summer. Though these women still did more domestic work than their partners, their input did not return to pre-Covid levels. For those with children aged 6-15, the drop in women’s share of the work was partially reversed by September but the bounce-back was less marked and they were still doing less than before the pandemic. But for those with children under five, the drop in women’s share of housework was reversed completely by September despite being more marked than that of other groups in Spring.

Conclusion

In terms of family dynamics, the lockdown will have had more lasting effects for some families than for others. Fears that advances in gender equality could be reversed during the pandemic were more real for those with very young children, who were much less able to keep themselves busy and who were not offered online education as older children were. One important reason for the division of labour during lockdown was men’s and women’s working hours – women tended to reduce their paid working hours more in order to take on the increased burden of care. This study highlights the need for a nuanced perspective on changes to family life during the pandemic and further research is needed to look at whether extended family networks were able to alleviate the increased care burden for some families, and how the pandemic affected the mental health of women with and without children.

Gendered division of housework during the COVID-19 pandemic: temporary shocks or durable change? by Alejandra Rodríguez Sánchez, Anette E. Fasang and Susan E. Harkness is published in Demographic Research

Other MiSoC research in this area

Read about this research in The Observer 19 December 2021