Covid-19 shines a light on gender inequality

The pandemic might exacerbate inequalities at home and at work rather than address them, the latest study by SMU finds

The Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the world is raising awareness of the burden that women have to bear in running a home during a time when families are being forced to stay indoors. Some academics believe that this spotlight could lead to a more equal gender division of house and care work that could persist even after the end of the crisis.

However, research from Singapore Management University (SMU) sociologist Aliya Rao shows that the current situation is likely to “crystallise” rather than address gender inequality. This is because men are seen as responsible for paid work and women, even when in higher-paying jobs, are seen as bearing the responsibility for unpaid work. This includes monitoring kids’ homework, organising food for the family, and making sure the home is clean, among other tasks. As such, unless societies tread carefully, Covid-19 might exacerbate gender inequalities at home and at work rather than undo them, argues Dr Aliya, who is an Assistant Professor of Sociology from SMU’s School of Social Sciences.

“Extreme situations, like Covid-19, really function as a lens that amplify everyday processes. What the pandemic and the measures like the circuit breaker have done is illuminate the extremely unequal division of housework between men and women with children,” she says.

Juggling work and home duties

During a lockdown, many families are no longer able to outsource care work to daycare centres and schools; requiring parents to juggle both their jobs and home-related duties.

“Paid work is continuing the same for the people who are lucky enough to have jobs, but working from home during the circuit breaker in Singapore, or lockdown elsewhere, has meant that parents, and especially mothers, are juggling with managing childcare and home-schooling while being expected to put in pretty much full days at work,” explains Asst Prof Aliya.

Data supporting this trend is starting to emerge from countries like the US, as well as in Singapore from AWARE, the country’s leading gender equality advocacy group. A report from Australia suggests that school closures have created an extra six hours of childcare related work for parents, of which women do four and men do two.

Asst Prof Aliya also notes that there is evidence to suggest that some women may be quitting their jobs in order to manage childcare during this time.

In the world of academia, where career progression is dependent on peer-reviewed publications, journals have reported receiving more articles from men during this time than at the same time last year; and with a dip in submissions from women. “This indicates that unequal caregiving, in academia, may impact careers down the line in particular,” she says.

Gender roles unlikely to change

While men have been taking on more of the share of housework during the lockdown period, emerging evidence indicates that men’s careers and income will continue to be prioritised post-pandemic.

“My educated guess at this time is that gendered behaviours are likely to change temporarily, but in the absence of social policies and cultural norms that support more gender egalitarian behaviours and beliefs, these will not translate to longer-lasting changes in gender roles,” says Asst Prof Aliya.

However, she believes that the pandemic is an ideal opportunity for society to properly acknowledge the value of care work, as well as its gendered nature.

“I think this is a key moment – when the value of care work simply cannot be ignored – to introduce structures and measures to provide support for care work in particular.”

She adds: “Care work is indispensable and it is gendered. It pushes women out of the labour forces across all social classes, but those with lower levels of education are particularly vulnerable.”

Changing societal norms

Addressing this issue will require investing in affordable and widespread day care, as well as putting in place policies such as paid parental leave, with provisions for both mothers and fathers to encourage a more equal division of childcare from the beginning.

Although far from perfect, some Scandinavian countries like Sweden have had success in using social policies to catalyse gender equality in terms of careers and caregiving for parents.

Social policies can also be a way to catalyse shifts in norms, especially related to the idea that men support their families by earning, and women by taking care of the home.

Furthermore, data shows that when men do contribute to unpaid work, it is primarily in the area of childcare; the kind of unpaid work that both parents like doing. Mothers, however, tend to do the kind of unpaid work that is viewed as thankless, such as cleaning toilets.

Says Asst Prof Aliya: “So I think one way for more gender equality is to use social policies to build robust systems where care work is not privatised and is supported by the society as a whole.”