In the midst of the pandemic, articles by journalists, public figures, and scholars on how to capitalize on time spent at home have been rapidly increasing, particularly those with suggestions on improving productivity. These articles employ motivational pressure to push readers to invest in “who they want to become” post-coronavirus. Suggestions range from quarantine recipes to have you cooking like the next Gordon Ramsey, home workouts to keep you moving and holding onto the promise of a summer body, and sweeping encouragements to learn a new skill and even a new language!
Some posts, however, have teetered dangerously close to a dialogue of shaming. Digital marketing expert Jeremy Haynes tweeted, “If you don’t come out of this quarantine with either: 1) a new skill; 2) starting what you’ve been putting off like a new business; 3) more knowledge. You didn’t ever lack the time, you lacked the discipline.”
It seems Jeremy doesn’t understand two important things – first, the problem of still trying to prioritize “normal” productivity during dual economic and public health crises that have turned all sense of normalcy upside down; and second, the gendered dynamic of this pandemic.
As with any social phenomenon, the pandemic has had impacts that affect different groups, classes, races, and genders disproportionately. The United Nations recently released a policy brief on COVID-19’s impact on women: “Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex.”
As a woman, this comes as no surprise, considering the preexisting challenges to gender equality. Coronavirus not only creates new challenges, it also exacerbates old ones. As a single woman living in a house alone, I’ve been privileged to not have to prioritize the care of a partner, children, or elderly family members, but my story is different from others. In speaking with my sister recently, she ran through the order of her day – or rather, the disorder – in which she manages cleaning the house; feeding, cleaning, and watching over her one-year-old daughter; and cooking the family meals. She only had the late evening, when the house was quiet and her family taken care of, to work. Her story is not unique. As I scroll through social media, I witness other (female) friends and family posting anecdotes with pictures about their day at home balancing kids, partners, and work.
The fact of the matter is, there is an opportunity cost to every action into which we choose to invest our time, and for many mothers at home there’s very little choice over which costs they endure. When mapping out the labor economy, this becomes even more intriguing when looking at a country ranked with the least amount of gender inequality – Switzerland. The gender inequality index (GII) is a measure of the loss of human development because of gender inequality in the areas of reproductive health, empowerment, and labor. For reproductive health, the differences between men and women are measured by maternal mortality ratio and adolescent birth rates. Empowerment reflects the proportion of elected seats held by women and the proportion of men and women over twenty-five who have attained secondary education. Lastly, labor measures economic achievement by the labor market participation rate of men and women over fifteen. A lower GII value (ranging between 0 and 1) indicates a higher level of gender equality. The most recent recorded values placed Switzerland, at 0.037, first on the list. To put it in perspective, Canada ranked 18th (0.083), the United States came in at 42nd (0.182), and Chad was 160th (0.701).
Despite this, Switzerland exists as a paradox of progression. In the past few years, more women are pursuing careers and education, yet they still hold more part-time jobs when compared to men and continue to bear the responsibility for domestic work. Surveys found that “women choose part-time work to care for their children, followed by other family responsibilities. Men working part time, on the other hand, are pursuing an apprenticeship or course of study, or are simply not interested in full-time work.”
In a country with the supposed “best” gender inequality index, men’s involvement in domestic work has increased over the years. Yet women still carry the weight of it. Women spend an average of seven hours per week cooking and preparing meals compared to men’s three hours. Cleaning, laundry and ironing, and child care total at a little over eight hours per week–double the time spent by men. The statistics further disfavor women when we look at single-parent households, with 143,000 managed by mothers with kids under twenty-five, compared to the 28,800 managed by fathers.
So what can we do as governments, families, and individuals to reduce the gap in the burden of domestic work? A common mantra adopted by organizations working toward gender equality is to “recognize, reduce and redistribute.” Through studies, information dissemination and individual conversations, societies must recognize the burden women shoulder, who globally are responsible for 75 percent of unpaid care and domestic work. (Domestic work accounts for a whopping 39 percent of GDP.) With these numbers, this labor adds more to the economy than the manufacturing, commerce, or transport sectors. Governments can create remuneration programs, such as Zambia’s Child Grant Program, which offers households with a child under five a monthly stipend.
We can reduce the time, energy, and resources that women spend on childcare through labor-saving innovations and services. For example, water purification systems can provide greater and closer access to clean water for women in rural areas. Free or subsidized childcare for working women, or improved working conditions for mothers and pregnant women would serve more developed or urban areas. As women, reduction may also mean a resistance to the emotional labor and pressure that is placed on us by society, those around us, and at times even ourselves, by affirming ourselves and our work, prioritizing rest, maintaining a strong support circle, and communicating our needs.
Redistribution requires the harder task of renewing thought processes and addressing expectations and roles in the household. This begins with teaching children that different forms of work warrant equal respect, both outside and inside the home. It continues with more men taking on domestic chores. We also need a shift in our cultural and societal expectations that “good womanhood,” “good motherhood,” and “good wife” equate to domestic and childcare capabilities. The state can contribute to redistribution by offering paid family leave, longer paternity leaves, and free or subsidized child care.
Many women have faced the decision to work fewer hours in order to balance domestic responsibilities, and these decisions have been exacerbated through either remote work or navigating access to the office during the pandemic. Mothers in our society have always been placed under public eye and scrutinized under a rhetoric of “good” versus “bad” motherhood. The time in quarantine not only increases their domestic responsibility and childcare, but also weighs on their mental and emotional wellbeing in a society that thrives on comparison. In a world where the “Supermom” is celebrated for having perfect children, a perfect husband, a perfect marriage, a perfect household, and perfect cooking, numerous mothers are facing mountains of inadequacy as they hike toward (and often fail) goals of impossibility. Where perfection and productivity at all times is the standard, we all fail. And in a gendered world where mothers, sisters, and daughters face a greater responsibility, men should be mindful of the (gender) gap.