The chore wars were about to go nuclear – and then a pandemic hit

The chore wars were about to go nuclear – and then a pandemic hit

What does COVID-19 mean for the much longed for “new reckoning” on the domestic load? Kristine Ziwica weighs in.

As an observer, campaigner and writer on all things “domestic democracy” (or lack thereof), I have long predicted that the so-called “chore wars”, the endless battle within heterosexual couples with children about who does the unpaid domestic and care work, were about to go nuclear, culminating in a “new reckoning” on the home-front.

Not so fun fact: In 2019, a new report released by Men Care, a fatherhood campaign working towards childcare parity in 45 nations, found that the unpaid care gap between men and women had decreased by just seven minutes over the last 15 years. That’s right, just seven minutes.

While women have been making strides to close the gender pay gap, the power gap, and other long-standing gaps, the care gap has barely shifted in a generation. At the current rate of change, it will be another 75 years before women as a group achieve so-called “domestic democracy”, according to the same report.

For women around the world who consistently do more unpaid care and domestic work than men – sometimes up to ten times as much— that’s a long time to wait.

Resentment has been bubbling away beneath the surface. More recently, it has boiled over, culminating in a series of viral essays and best-selling books giving voice to women’s growing frustration. And that trend led me to conclude that the so-called “chore wars”, long a series of skirmishes on the feminist frontline (or in pretty much every average household, gender politics aside) was about to go nuclear, bringing about a “new reckoning” on the home-front.

If #MeToo was a reckoning prompting us to “believe women”, challenge men’s privilege in the workplace, and re-evaluate our cultural tendency to discredit and sideline women’s inconvenient stories of abuse, I theorised we were working up to a new reckoning of sorts in regards to the barely shifting unequal distribution of work at home.

And then the pandemic hit.

What will that mean for that much-longed for revolution on the home front? Will it speed up the pace of change, or send most women, particularly those in heterosexual relationships with children, back to the 1950’s?

The answer, I suspect, is that it will be a little of both.

Early indications are that the pandemic — while it affects men more physically —  will have a more devasting impact on women in the workplace and in the home.  They make up the lion’s share of so-called front-line essential workers, jobs that tend to be female dominated, undervalued and put them at greater risk. And they have been more affected by virus related job losses, leading the New York Times to claim the looming financial and economic crisis will be a “shecession”.

In homes, the mass closure of schools, childcare facilities and stay at home orders have contributed to what some are now calling a “third shift” of unpaid caring and domestic work, a play on sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s famous concept of the “second shift”.

Anecdotally, we’re hearing that it is women in Australia who are picking up that “third shift”, though we’ll have more concrete evidence in a few weeks when the Australian Bureau of Statistics releases some data on time use as part of its Rapid COVID-19 data dives. Researchers Professor Lyn Craig and Dr. Brendan Churchill at the University of Melbourne are also conducting a survey. (Do your civic duty and take part here.)

In the US, we most certainly know that is the case. Last week, the New York Times published the results of a bombshell survey. Seventy percent of women say they’re fully or mostly responsible for housework during lockdown, and 66 percent say they are responsible for childcare. No great surprise there, at least to no woman I know. Here’s the interesting bit: Nearly half of men say they are spending more time home-schooling their children, while only 3 percent of women agree. I know, the cheek! Perhaps you read my column last week telling men to put their home-schooling where their mouth is.

In the short to medium term, I do believe the pandemic will, as some have suggested, “send women back to the 1950’s”, particularly in Australia where women still experience a 14 percent gender pay gap and have some of the highest part-time work rates of women in any OECD country. At this time of great stress and uncertainty, families will make what I have called an economically rational decision to preserve at least one partner’s full time, higher earnings, which, statistically speaking, is more likely to be the male partner’s. 

And that’s an indication of how long-standing structural inequalities that we never shifted are combining with the pressures of the pandemic  — a time when women can no longer “outsource” caring  and domestic work to (usually female, undervalued) cleaners and carers — to demonstrate just how fragile progress is, even those meagre seven minutes.

Jennifer Medina and Lisa Lerer wrote in the New York Times in a piece entitled, “When Mom’s Zoom Meeting Is The One That Has to Wait” that “the way we’ve been able to MacGyver a career as a woman is completely under attack by a global pandemic”. Very true.

That said, some have economists have theorised that it’s not all bad, and I agree. Much like World War II and the advent of Rosie the Riveter gave women a taste of what it was like to enter the workplace and have financial independence, which helped pave the way for the major changes of the 70’s and 80’s when women entered the workforce in large numbers, the longer term impact of large numbers of men now at home with their children (especially those who are genuinely carrying the lion’s share of the domestic load because their partners are now “essential workers”) could prove equally transformative.

In a new research paper, Matthias Doepke and Jane Olmstead-Rumsey of Northwestern University, Titan Alon of the University of California San Diego and Michèle Tertilt of the University of Mannheim predict that this historic moment could forever shift dynamics in families, leading to greater gender equality down the road.

Down the road”, emphasis mine.

Will that be swift enough to satisfy the countless women who were already hankering for a revolution long before the pandemic added insult to injury by saddling them with an additional “third shift”. Maybe. Maybe not.  

Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica

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