1Taking into account both paid and unpaid work, the weekly working hours of women before the pandemic were 10 hours more than that of men (73 hours for women compared to 63 hours for men). Unpaid work accounted for 41% of men’s working hours and 66% of women’s working hours.
2Following the first wave of the pandemic and lockdown, the gender gap in total hours worked increased to 16 hours (62 hours for the male population compared to 78 hours for the female population), because of the greater involvement of women in unpaid work (48 hours before lockdown compared to 54 hours after lockdown).
3The greater job flexibility of women, alongside the presence of traditional social models, could explain this increase in the gender gap in the dedication to unpaid work.
4The unequal sharing of family responsibilities may have significant costs for the job opportunities of women.
The covid-19 restrictions may be having a negative impact on gender equality
The covid-19 pandemic may have represented a step backwards as regards gender equality. First of all, women are overrepresented in those sectors with most social interaction, which are those that have been most affected by lockdown and restrictions. Examples of such sectors include catering, non-essential retail and tourism. Furthermore, the measures taken to prevent contagion have brought with them a significant rise in the number of hours devoted to household chores and childcare. Thus, for example, families have been forced to take on care duties as a result of the closure of classes or even whole schools. They have also had to cope with the restrictions imposed on out-of-school activities during and after the lockdown period. The recommendation to avoid leaving children in their grandparents’ care for health reasons is relevant in this connection. Lastly, attention should be drawn to, among other aspects, the impossibility of externalising household chores during the state of alarm, and the restrictions imposed on the catering industry and other services, which have also affected families.
With the aim of studying the impacts on gender equality within families, information was collected on a representative sample of men and women with children aged under 13 in their care at two times: in the period immediately before the declaration of the first state of alarm (which lasted from 14 March to 20 June 2020) and in the period following the strict lockdown and the first wave of the pandemic (November and December 2020).
1. Women’s working week, including paid and unpaid work, was 10 hours longer than men’s prior to the pandemic
Before the declaration of the first state of alarm, sizable differences existed between men and women in the number of hours per week spent doing paid and unpaid work. On average, men spent 37 hours a week doing paid work, while women did 24 hours a week. Men spent 26 hours a week doing unpaid work (8 doing housework and 18 looking after the children) and women 48 hours (12 doing housework and 36 looking after the children). Thus, men’s working week, including paid and unpaid work, was 63 hours, while women’s was 73 hours. Unpaid work accounted for 41% of men’s working week and 66% of women’s. This situation has changed after the first wave of the pandemic and lockdown, in such a way as to widen the gap between the two populations.
It should be noted that, in the study carried out, hours per week spent doing household chores include cleaning the house, doing the washing, doing the shopping, cooking, doing paperwork and doing household repairs. Hours devoted to childcare consist of physical care, emotional care (including help with homework) and leisure time spent with the children in their care.
2. Women’s double burden is accentuated by the increase in unpaid work in the home
After the first state of alarm (November and December 2020), men’s total hours worked per week, includ-ing paid and unpaid work, decreased by 1 hour. However, weekly hours worked by women increased by 5 hours. As a result, the gender gap in the length of the working week widened from 10 to 16 hours. This is due to the fact that, in comparison with the situation prior to the pandemic, the time women spent doing paid work fell by 1 hour a week, while the time they spent doing household chores and looking after the children rose by 3 hours a week in both cases. In turn, men spent 3 hours less per week doing paid work, while they spent 1 hour more per week doing household chores and 1 hour more looking after the children.
The pandemic has left women with a longer working week. In November and December 2020, the time spent by men and women doing paid work was similar to the situation before the pandemic. However, after the outbreak of the pandemic, women are spending more time doing unpaid work (48 hours before the state of alarm and lockdown and 54 hours afterwards). Therefore, the pandemic has increased gender inequality in unpaid work and has accentuated the phenomenon known as the double burden or second shift, whereby women, after completing their paid working day, take on the larger share of unpaid work in the home.
The study on which this article is based supports these results and confirms that the widening of the gender gap in the length of the working week is related to the increase in the time women spend doing unpaid work.
3. Women’s greater labour flexibility and greater involvement in unpaid work during the pandemic could slow down progress towards gender equality
Before the pandemic, 56% of men and 57% of women considered that their work schedule was flexible and facilitated a work-life balance. After the first state of alarm and lockdown, this percentage has increased much more among women than among men (59% in men as opposed to 68% in women). At the other extreme, before the pandemic, 23% of men and 24% of women considered that their work was not flexible. This percentage has decreased significantly among women, to 16%, and less so among men, to 21%.
Furthermore, notable differences come to light in the work schedule of men and women with children in their care. Whereas before the pandemic 70% of men and 61% of women worked after five p.m., which amounts to a difference of 9 percentage points, this difference has risen to 15 percentage points (61% in the case of men as compared to 46% in that of women). Physical presence in the workplace has also decreased significantly since the onset of the pandemic. Nonetheless, more women than men have opted to work from home every day of the week (20% of women as opposed to 15% of men) and more men than women never work from home (69% in the case of men and 64% in that of women).
Women’s greater labour flexibility, in terms of both time and space, could explain their larger contribution to unpaid work during the pandemic. Several studies have warned that the disproportionate involvement of women in unpaid work would limit their employment prospects. Therefore, women’s greater labour flexibility and greater involvement in unpaid work during the pandemic could slow down progress towards gender equality.
4. When children cannot attend school, they are looked after mostly by women
The pandemic has generated an additional family responsibility: looking after the children when they are unable to attend school. This may be because they have caught covid-19, because they show symptoms compatible with the disease, because they have to go into quarantine owing to having been in contact with someone who is positive, or because of the partial or total closure of the school owing to a positive case having been detected among the teachers or the pupils. Among the respondents to the study conducted, 28% stated that the children in their care had been absent from school at some time since the beginning of the school year, in September 2020, for reasons related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In 49% of these cases, it was the mother who looked after the children. In the remaining cases, they were looked after by the father (27%) or grandparents (13%), or other alternatives were sought (11%).
Generally, workers have two options to choose from to cope with this additional family responsibility: make their schedule or their physical workplace more flexible, or take some time off work in the form of holiday time or unpaid leave. The data collected indicate that the first option is more common among women and the second among men.
5. The presence of traditional social models has heightened the effect of the pandemic on gender inequality
Recent studies highlight the importance of social models when it comes to determining the distribution of unpaid work in the home. Using the data collected for the study on which this article is based, it is possible to analyse the effect of the pandemic on gender gaps in two types of families. The first type, which could be called traditional families, are those in which, before the pandemic, childcare fell mostly on women. In the second type, which could be called non-traditional families, childcare was shared more equally. This division of families was done on the basis of the answers to the survey question “Before the declaration of the state of alarm, how was childcare shared between you and your partner or spouse?” The response options were as follows: “I always did it”; “I did much more”; “I did a bit more”; “It was shared equally”; “My partner did a bit more”; “My partner did much more”; “My partner always did it”. Traditional families are those in which, if the respondent was a woman, she answered: “I always did it”, “I did much more” or “I did a bit more”, and if the respondent was a man, he answered: “My partner did a bit more”, “My partner did much more” or “My partner always did it”.
The data obtained shows that, with the pandemic, the gender gap in unpaid work has widened more among traditional couples than among non-traditional ones (by 6 hours as opposed to 3 hours respectively). Furthermore, the gender gap in paid work has also become wider among traditional families (by 6 hours), whereas it has narrowed among non-traditional ones (by 1 hour). This result suggests that, for women who do most of the household chores, the negative impact of the pandemic on their employment prospects may have been greater.
The results of the study on which this article is based indicate that the pandemic has accentuated the phe-nomenon known as the double burden. The measures taken to stop the expansion of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have entailed an unprecedented increase in time spent doing household chores and looking after children. Women’s greater labour flexibility may be related to their greater involvement in these tasks.
In a context where social norms continue to attribute to women the role of main homemaker, labour flexibility can amount to a double-edge sword for gender equality. On the one hand, more flexible jobs would foster female participation in the labour market, by facilitating a balance with family life. On the other hand, greater labour flexibility is also associated with lower wages and could represent a serious limitation for women’s career development.
In order to encourage a fairer distribution of labour flexibility and promote gender equality both inside and outside the home, it is necessary to implement policies that make it easier to combine work, personal and family life for all workers. The goal is to prevent women having to shoulder the main burden of family responsibilities and thus seeing their career aspirations and opportunities curtailed.
7. Study characteristics
The study on which this article is based assesses the impact the pandemic has had on gender inequality in paid and unpaid work in Spain. To this effect, information was gathered for a representative sample of men and women with children aged under 13 in their care at two times: in the period immediately before the declaration of the first state of alarm (14 March 2020) and in the period following the strict lockdown and the first wave of the pandemic (November and December 2020). This exercise is of a descriptive nature and its purpose is to offer a rough approximation of the effect of the pandemic on gender inequality. To this end, a comparison was made of the variables of interest for men and women, before and after the declaration of the first state of alarm.
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