Governments around the world responded to COVID-19 by shutting schools, nurseries and most forms of childcare in order to stop the spread of the virus. Overnight, parents with young children faced a very large additional burden of childcare, raising issues of how working parents have coped with looking after children and how the additional childcare has been shared within the household. Prior to COVID-19, childcare was shared unequally between working mothers and fathers (mothers do an estimated two-thirds in the UK). The unequal division of childcare is a leading factor in explaining the gender pay gap (Kleven et al. 2019).
The division of domestic labour during lockdown has followed a similar pattern to that pre-COVID-19. Women have borne the majority of the additional burden of childcare. They are also doing a lot more juggling of childcare and work than men are. The time that women spend on childcare is less sensitive to their employment than it is for men, and they do a lot of childcare even when they are still working. Short term, this appears to be negatively impacting their mental health (Adams-Prassl et al. 2020b); longer-term this may impact negatively on their careers and worsen gender pay gaps. More positively, there have been baby steps towards a more equal allocation. Many men have had their working hours reduced or lost their jobs since lockdown and, in households where men have more time on their hands because they are furloughed or been made unemployed, there is an equal sharing of childcare. This offers a glimmer of hope for a more positive future in terms of the domestic division of labour.
These are the main findings from survey data we collected at the beginning of May 2020 that asked about employment and childcare pre- and post-COVID (Sevilla and Smith 2020). A similar story emerges from other post-COVID survey evidence reported in Adams-Prassl et al. (2020a) and Andrews et al. (2020). An advantage of our survey is that we can directly compare the allocation of childcare within households before and after lockdown, allowing us to control for unobserved heterogeneity (e.g. preferences for allocating childcare) that may be correlated with childcare and employment outcomes.
In more detail, the picture of the domestic division of childcare in lockdown is the following:
There is a substantial burden of childcare for families with young children, who are doing the equivalent of a working week of additional childcare, often on top of paid work. We asked survey respondents to report the number of hours of additional childcare done per day by themselves and their partner. The mean additional childcare across the week (7 days) is 49 hours per household (median = 40). This averages across families with young children (aged <=12).1 Calculating the within-household childcare allocation, we find that, on average, women are responsible for doing 63% of the additional childcare. This is a slight narrowing on the pre-lockdown share.
Part of the explanation for why women do more childcare is that are less likely still to be working. Looking at all working-age respondents, women are 5 percentage points less likely than men still to be working (3 percentage points more likely to be on furlough and 2 percentage points more likely to have lost their jobs). The gender gap among those with young children is bigger at 10 percentage points.2 This makes the effect of COVID-19 different to previous recessions that hit men worse. One reason for the gender differential is that women work in sectors (retail, leisure) that have been harder hit by social distancing measures (Alon et al. 2020, Hupuak and Petrongolo 2020, Joyce and Xu 2020), although they are also more likely to be key workers. However, including controls for sector of employment does not eliminate the gap. It is also plausible that the differential pattern of job loss may in part be driven by additional childcare needs: the probability that women are not working is positively correlated with the within-household share of childcare that they did pre-COVID-19 – in other words, women who were doing more childcare prior to COVID-19 are more likely not to be working during lockdown.
The fact that women are less likely to be working than men cannot fully account for their greater burden of childcare. The amount of time women spend on childcare is much less sensitive to their employment than it is for men. Women do a lot of childcare irrespective of whether they are working or not, while men put in a lot more childcare when they are not working compared to when they are. This means that women are doing a lot more juggling of work and childcare than men are, which may be very stressful. It also means that mothers’ childcare comes more at the expense of their productivity (and future career prospects) than it does for fathers’. When working from home during lockdown, it is hard to be as productive as someone without children if you are juggling work with near full-time childcare. Coviello et al. (2015) show that judges who juggle more trials at once, instead of working sequentially on a few of them at each unit of time, take longer in closing a case. Adams (2020) shows that fragmented work patterns among mothers with young children is associated with lower pay. In academia there is anecdotal and some statistical evidence that the share of working papers being published and submissions to journals by women has fallen post-COVID-19 and that the share of new work on COVID-19 from women is particularly low (Amano-Patino et al. 2020, Shurchkov 2020). Employers need to recognise – and take measures to compensate parents for – the lockdown childcare burden.
However, even though fathers are doing a smaller share than mothers, the sheer scale of the additional burden of childcare has meant that there has been a sizeable increase in childcare done by fathers (an average of 19 hours according to our self-reported data). Fathers who are not working – and, to a lesser extent, those who were working from home – have substantially increased the number of hours that they do and assumed an equal (or in some cases greater than equal share) share of childcare. This has driven a slight reduction in the within-household gender gap (i.e. the excess of the share of childcare done by women over the share of childcare done by men) from 30.6 percentage points to 27.2 percentage points.
This provides a glimmer of hope for a more equal allocation in the future. The existing literature on the long-term effects of changes in domestic labour is mixed. Some evidence from paternity leave policies suggests that temporary changes can have longer-term effects on social norms, evidenced by increases in the time that fathers spend in household activities, including childcare (Ferre and Gonzalez 2019, Patnaik 2019). Two things are distinctive about COVID-19 lockdowns. The first is the scale of the demand-side shock. The changes have been profound. The total amount of childcare being done at home completely dwarves usual amounts because of the closure of almost all formal childcare. The impact has also been across the board, affecting all families, meaning that almost all men have increased the quantity of childcare that they do. But the second difference is that this is not a deliberate policy to promote a more equal distribution of childcare; changes in the division of labour are an unintended consequence of measures to stop a virus spreading. The changes that have been brought about may need to be recognised and reinforced to have longer-term effects.
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1 Adams-Prassl et al. (2020a) asked men and women to report hours spent looking after children and home-schooling. Combining the two activities, mean total childcare across weekdays (5 days) is 35 hours. This averages across all families.
2 Both the qualitative and quantitative findings on scale of job loss are almost identical to those in other studies (Adams-Prassl et al. 2020a, Andrews et al. 2020).