The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis on so many levels. One new one that has emerged in the last few months is the division of labor in the home. Several new studies have found that in heterosexual couples, women have been saddled with much more housework than men even now that both of them are working from home all day.
In families with children, the pandemic has disproportionately affected mothers. Mothers are much more likely than fathers to reduce their working hours and focus more on childcare. In short, the pandemic has made the gender gap much, much worse.
A study published in the Gender, Work, and Organization Journal found that in the pandemic, mothers have cut their work hours "four to five times more than fathers." It also concluded that the gender gap has been made "20 to 50 percent worse" due to the pandemic, according to BuzzFeed News.
It's not a new concept that men believe they do more to help their household than they actually do, but the pandemic has thrown this inequality into stark relief for a lot of families. In the study, half of men claimed that they were responsible for helping their kids with online schooling. Only three percent of women agreed.
Caitlyn Collins, assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and coauthor of the study, said they first pursued the question of housework and childcare during the pandemic because they thought that maybe, since everyone was home all the time, more men would realize what has to get done in the home and step up to help.
But that has not been the case. At all. In fact, the opposite is happening. Because we're home all the time and kids are home all the time, there's more housework and more childcare on parents' plates each day. And this has led to an even worse division of labor than before.
William Scarborough, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Texas and a coauthor of the study, said that men aren't necessarily abstaining from housework intentionally. "Say a child needs help opening a jar or getting a toy or getting some food," he said.
"For many families, in parenting, there's just this 'Mom is better at it' narrative. So the kid might go to Mom. But what might actually be happening there is: The more they rely on Mom, the better Mom gets at it, and Dad doesn't have to. There is a name for this: learned helplessness.
"Men learn not to know all the things because they just don't have to." When men don't take the time to learn something, he said, "couples who intend to have an egalitarian division end up moving away from that."
If you've ever been on Reddit's "Am I the A-hole?" subreddit, you can reasonably rely on at least one post a week about a man who doesn't understand why his wife is upset that he doesn't do much housework. "It's just the way it's always been," he'll say. "If she wants help, she could ask me nicely," he'll whine.
But this statement points to a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of housework. If two people live in a house, the housework belongs to both of them. Period. Just because the woman has historically stepped up to clean and do dishes and laundry does not mean the housework is hers and that she occasionally needs "help" with "her tasks."
Housework and childcare belong to men just as much as they do to women. The solution to the mounting inequality due to the pandemic, Scarborough says, is to really take a close look at who does what every day and make sure the women aren't picking up more work just because they've been conditioned to see it and do it.
"A lot of households where this is happening, they might not even be aware of it," he says. "It's these small tasks that are just here and there. Fathers need to really look at their house and keep track of who's doing what, and if the kids are always going to Mom, and if they see a result they don't like, maybe they should look in the mirror and evaluate that."
And if men think everything's fine but their partners are struggling, they shouldn't wait to be asked for "help" in maintaining their own houses and caring for their own families. They should simply step up and do the work.