Sometime in the 1990s, a friend told me we didn’t have to worry about progress for women: “Feminism is in the drinking water now.” She wasn’t entirely wrong. Despite all the complexities and counterexamples, for a while it looked as though women were finally making real progress—in the workplace, in the home, in government, in the way they saw themselves.
Well, thanks to Covid-19, you can forget all that. In less than a year, women’s equality has rolled back down the hill as fast as Sisyphus’s rock. According to a report by the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress, “even a 5 percent decline” in mothers’ economic participation “would undo the past 25 years of progress.”
Women are more likely than men to get Covid-19, because so many work in dangerous essential jobs like health care, but they are less likely to die from it. So there’s that. On the downside, four times as many people who have lost their jobs are women. Some of this is because of the fields women are concentrated in: child care, for example, an almost entirely female job category, as well as retail, travel, hospitality, housecleaning, caregiving, and other jobs requiring extensive social contact. These lines of work have all taken huge hits. But some of the job loss was because of the less visible work women were already doing. Many quit or were fired because of the difficulty of combining work with caring for their children, at home because the schools and day care centers were shut down and nannies and sitters were at home caring for their own kids. This was true even for women who theoretically could work from home—try keeping up with your job while your toddler has a meltdown or your grade-schoolers rebel over yet another day in Zoom school.
In theory, working remotely could have led to more equal roles for mothers and fathers. But in a forthcoming paper in Gender & Society, sociologists Allison Dunatchik, Kathleen Gerson, Jennifer Glass, Jerry A. Jacobs, and Haley Stritzel review literature suggesting that it has done the opposite:
Zamarro and colleagues (2020) [report] that 64% of college-educated mothers said they had reduced their working hours at some point by early June, compared to 36% of college-educated fathers and 52% of college-educated women without young children. In early April, 1 in 3 mothers reported that they were the main caregiver compared to only 1 in 10 working fathers. Lyttelton, Zang and Musick (2020) found that mothers were spending significantly more time doing housework and caring for children during their working hours in April and May than they did in the pre-pandemic period. And children spent more than twice as much time with their telecommuting moms than with their dads. Telecommuting fathers had increased their child care on telecommuting days, but not their housework.
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Another study notes that women, especially mothers, senior-level women, and Black women, “report the most ‘stress and burnout.’” Single mothers continue to have the hardest time of all.
In their own study of families during the pandemic, Dunatchik and her colleagues found that while both parents were doing more housework and child care, women were doing far more of it than their male partners and were shouldering much more of the homeschooling. Most strikingly, working women bore a greater burden. “Being employed did not appear to reduce mothers’ share of responsibility for housework, childcare, or home learning within couples,” the researchers concluded. “To the contrary, 77% of employed mothers report being mainly responsible for housework, 61% report being mainly responsible for childcare, and 78% report taking the lead on helping with their children’s remote learning.” When only the mother worked remotely, she shouldered the vast majority of domestic labor; when only the father worked remotely, he did not.
Clearly, the ability to work from home is not going to be the magic solution for domestic inequality that some promoters of flextime hoped it would—gendered behavior is too baked in. And that will have serious implications for the future, as women lose promotions, job opportunities, credits, and seniority due to Covid-related time away from their jobs. Inside Higher Ed reports that “female academics are taking extended lockdowns on the chin, in terms of their comparative scholarly productivity.” While the submission of academic papers increased for both sexes, men’s increased far more, and senior-level women’s declined—probably because they are more likely to have children than younger women. That leaves men with less competition for coveted publication slots.
It makes me wonder to what extent women’s progress is dependent on prosperity, personal liberty, and, of course, support systems like day care, schools, and after-school programs. When things are going well, middle-class and professional women can just about manage, and some even thrive. A lot of inequality can be papered over by hiring a weekly cleaner and a nanny, to say nothing of eating out. But when those factors are removed, when money is tight and time is tighter, the basic structure of male supremacy shows itself to be remarkably intact. Women, it turns out, are the safety net—for society, for children, and for men as well.
The fact that men usually earn more is part of it, but one reason he earns more is because she steps back. He has the benefit of her domestic labor, which his female coworkers do not have; domestic and workplace inequality work together. And although we often make it seem terribly complicated, a matter of preferences, habits, comfort, and even biology—I’m always hearing that women prefer doing the chores themselves—it isn’t really that hard to explain. Men do less at home because they can. Women do more because someone’s got to do it. This is true whether he earns more, she earns more, or they both earn around the same. He may have put down his scepter, thanks to over 50 years of modern feminism, but he’s still got an invisible ermine cloak.
What would happen if women simply stopped letting themselves be taken advantage of by someone who supposedly loves them? Would the world split open then?