What does the pandemic mean for gender equality?

Terri Apter with a view.

The pervasive dread felt during a pandemic is likely to skew one’s outlook. Forecasts tend to be gloomy, and the possibility of positive outcomes is often ignored. So when the question, “Will the pandemic affect women and men equally?” is raised, the predictions, so far, have been of dire consequences for women. 

The pandemic, it is said, will be a disaster for feminism. Not only is the burden heavier for women during the pandemic, but in the aftermath, they will be driven back to their 1950s roles of cook, carer and cleaner. Such arguments follow well-travelled reasoning: women still do more in the home; the work in keeping a family fed and entertained still largely falls on women; women’s income tends to be less than men’s and, as child care becomes more problematic and family income falls, women’s work is likely to be marginalised even further.  

A very different outcome, however, is possible, and in envisioning it, we might be better equipped to achieve it.

Laws currently in place require both women and men to work from home as much as possible. In some families, where the bias against women’s choices is overt – that is, where child care and domestic management is women’s and not men’s job – the additional tasks of home schooling and prolonged child care and meal procurement and preparation, women will have additional burdens and additional stress. In such households, even if the husband is out of work, and the wife is in work, the domestic work 'belongs to her'. I call this Family 1.  

Let’s also look at families where biases arise not from overt beliefs, but from unconscious patterns of preference and deference that persist even when gender equality is valued. These patterns are more likely to be resisted if made more salient. The husband (by which I mean male partner, or partner identified as having the more traditional male role) earns more, devotes more energy to work and less to family than his wife. The gratitude and occasional guilt he shows for burdening his wife signals that he values equality, even though he does not enact it. I call this Family 2.

Then there is Family 3 in which husband/wife’s domestic contributions are pretty evenly shared, and where any differential in job status or income is either non-existent or unimportant. Both husband and wife (in the broad sense of two people forming a couple) are now working from home, schooling and entertaining children, and facing new responsibilities, as shopping and cooking and cleaning are more difficult to outsource.  

In Family 4 there is only one parent taking on domestic and financial responsibilities. If the parent works, then it is likely she (90% of single parents are women) has a support network particularly child care. But during the pandemic, she cannot socialize with those who had previously made meeting her multiple responsibilities viable. Even her parents can no longer offer practical support. 

If the pandemic is a disaster for feminism, it has to make things worse for women both now and in the aftermath. In Family 1, the woman has more to do during the pandemic, but in the aftermath there is little change from before the pandemic.  

Family 4 is in many ways similar: there was task overload before the pandemic; it will be awful during the pandemic, and pretty much the same, in that respect, after the pandemic. 

In Family 2, there may be a significant improvement during the pandemic. The husband is now doing a lot of work from home. There is less travelling and less commuting. There are fewer gatherings at the pub or club in which, it is claimed, real business is done, and which prolong the 'working' day. There are fewer interpersonal 'interruptions' from co-workers that may have been the subject of complaint but which probably offered nice mini-breaks from work. These are replaced by interruptions from children or deliveries. Under the vanity-pleasing guise of 'being helpful', the husband pitches in, and the wife shows gratitude.  

In Family 2, if a wife earns less than her husband, her work itself is likely to be marginalised. When domestic demands increase, it therefore seems reasonable for her to give up her paid work and dedicate herself to domestic work, thereby freeing her husband to devote all his time to better paid work. Those who predict the Covid-19 pandemic will deliver a body blow to women, believe this 'family time allocation' syndrome is bound to prevail in difficult financial times.

But every economic crisis is different, and different types of workers face different risks, accordingly. While the recession following the banking crisis of 2008 lead to a contraction of the public sector (austerity to balance bailouts), the Covid-19 pandemic may strengthen all the sectors that employ key workers. Certainly, starving the health sector of funds is likely to be political poison for some time to come.  

Any one of these different family types might consist of a key worker, and this could deliver a jolt to gender inequality. Most key workers are women. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that 60% of key workers are women, so their trajectory through and after the pandemic will mark a significant social trend. These teachers, nurses, doctors, care-workers, food workers still go out of the home to do their job – jobs that people are celebrating rather than marginalising, whatever their previous status, whatever their level of pay. Biased assumptions (in Families 1 and 2) that the husband’s work is more important might well fall by the wayside.

Moreover, it is via the key worker that the partner at home gets some reprieve of the tedium of full time childcare for school age children.  Whether it is work or sanity that takes priority, this priceless benefit is not easily ignored. Husbands in this situation, even in Family 1, might then make domestic adjustments and work sacrifices that defy their biases.  

For couples where both are working from home, the assumption that one partner’s work matters more than the other’s will also be challenged. Devoid of the trappings of suit or briefcase or commute or office, there is room for a new equality. With children around, working will be very difficult for both parents, which may highlight the necessity of reasonable negotiations. The negotiations won’t always be fair. Under stress, a husband might draw on assumptions about the greater significance of his work, but many couples will bring a new vision to the work/domestic equation.  

Spending more time together may also increase sensitivity to the other’s frustrations and tipping points. While some are predicting that stress, uncertainty, boredom and alcohol consumption will lead to an increase in domestic abuse, studies show a decrease in divorce rates in times of disaster. Just as we reach out to a friend we thought we would never speak to again, couples are likely to focus on the connection and support within their partnership, and to gloss over the irritations that are magnified in happier times.

For women who do not have child care to manage, this particular change feels, for the time being, positive. My current research, in partnerships with The Female Lead, involves interviewing working women from the ages of 25 to 40. Our interviews are now taking place via phone or Skype, and we have been hearing about the benefits of working from home. It is not only the absence of a tedious and stressful commute, it is also the greater peacefulness of surroundings and the new opportunity for personal reflection, that lift their mood. Some also enjoy freedom from the small power plays in the office, such as boasting about successes or faux complaining about how busy one is.  

Every pandemic has its own psychology, lingering costs and individual aftermath. A long term recession will be devastating for all families; it will hit people with less much harder, whether they are male or female. Joblessness is related to ill health and depression for both women and men and their children. The Ebola outbreak, often cited in the argument that this pandemic will be particularly bad for feminism, occurred in a society where girls were far more disadvantaged than boys as a result of school closures, and where, when food was scarce, men and boys were less likely to starve than women or girls.  Each society will have very different experiences of both the disease and its management. There are always uncertain outcomes in a great shake up, but in the UK, any gender divide is likely to narrow as sectors with a high proportion of women are granted new respect and the real grit of caring labor is made manifest. Our shaken society will then be a stronger one.

Dr Terri Apter
University of Cambridge 

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