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Study Shows That COVID-19 Disproportionately Affects The Lives Of Mothers

by Madeleine Janz

In the wake of COVID-19, daycares, schools and workplaces have closed down and most of the population has severely altered their day-to-day habits. For mothers, this has meant changes to their work-life balance and an increase in invisible unpaid labor. The United Nations reports that not only women’s safety is affected by COVID-19 related stay-at-home orders but also the amount of time women spend on household and childcare tasks. Their data shows that women spend an average of 4.1 hours a day on unpaid care and domestic work while men spend only 1.7 hours on the same tasks. 

In an attempt to research and address this disparity, sociologists Caitlyn Collins, Liana Christin Landivar, Leah Ruppanner and William J. Scarborough undertook a study based on data provided by the US Current Population Survey on dual-earning heterosexual married couples in the middle and upper classes. They set out to analyze how COVID-19 had affected these families from February to April 2020, when most states had rigid stay-at-home orders. They asked, “If so many people are working from home, might the silver lining of the pandemic be that the invisible labor that traditionally has fallen on women becomes more visible to men, and spur equal participation?”

What they found was exactly the opposite. Out of the couple’s surveyed, families with children under 13 saw mothers take a reduction in their work hours five times larger than their male partners. This means that while fathers’ work hours remained essentially the same as they were pre-pandemic, mothers’ work hours took a hit of two hours each week. The study notes this is much higher than the 30 minutes per week mothers lost in the Great Depression. 

This experience can be partially explained by the phenomenon of ‘learned helplessness’ which is explained well by Scarborough who says, “For many families, in parenting, there’s just this ‘Mom is better at it’ narrative. So the kid might go to Mom. But what might actually be happening there is: The more they rely on Mom, the better Mom gets at it, and Dad doesn’t have to.” Collins continues, “Men learn not to know all the things, because they just don’t have to. Over time, couples who intend to have an egalitarian division end up moving away from that.” COVID-19 has only exacerbated these issues that could have long-term effects for women’s upward mobility in workplaces. 

The study ends on a note of advice for parents and employers on how to work towards a more equitable workplace and labor divisions. The researchers conclude with, “To avoid long‐term losses in women’s labour force participation, employers should offer flexibility to keep mothers attached to employment, including allowing employees to work shorter hours. Further, fathers should be encouraged to provide more hours of care for their children, which may mean sacrificing paid work hours to do so.” If we don’t heed this advice, the results could be a drastically changed workforce and regressive, gendered expectations for divisions of household labor. 


Photo credit by Gustavo Fring via pexels

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