If we had to put the entire last year into a hashtag, it would most probably be #TheNewNormal. Every major aspect of our lives went through an unexpected transition as the COVID-19 stopped the world in its tracks.
From time immemorial, youngsters have been leaving home to seek education while adults have been setting out in search of work to sustain their livelihoods. All that came to a halt as the world retreated to protect itself against an invisible microorganism for an enemy. Everything familiar was replaced with a ‘new normal’. The distinction between household chores and work tasks was no exception as the world adapted to a new normal of working from home.
Although work from home has allowed for greater flexibility and autonomy for employees to manage their performance at work while being able to spend more time with their families, it comes with its own set of challenges. The blurred lines between the time at home and time at work has the tendency to lead to no time for either. The question is whether the juxtaposition of domestic roles and professional roles has benefited working individuals or made things more challenging. And whether the challenges have impacted both the genders equally or are they further aggravating the gender disparity.
Arooba, a newly married working woman based in Karachi, shares her experience of transitioning to work from home. “Initially I was excited to save my commute time that works from home would allow. The city traffic would easily take up over two hours of my day. I was looking forward to spending more time with my husband but to my surprise I find myself wondering if I want that time to myself back,” she admits sheepishly. “I feel like the days are passing by while I juggle between preparing meals, doing dishes, attending zoom calls, and the cycle continues till it is time to crash and wake up the next morning and repeat the cycle every day,” she sighed.
When asked if she sees any changes in the division of household chores due to the pandemic she answered, “My husband also works from home now, so he does end up helping out with dishes while he is on a break from online meetings and client calls but I would call it more of an occasionally made choice rather than a division of responsibilities. Instead, I now have the additional task of preparing and serving lunch in the middle of my office work.”
Arooba is not alone in this scenario. At the cusp of the transition to work from home, people did expect this change to bring about a paradigm shift in gender roles. Especially in houses where both partners are employed. The underlying assumption was that since people will be witnessing their partners juggling their performance at work while managing household chores it would automatically lead to a mutual understanding of the need to share the burden of the unpaid household chores that comes with it. However, the problem is the pandemic has only worsened the burden on working women.
Although the economic downturn caused by the pandemic has hit hard across the board, the impact has left women even more vulnerable than men. A report that was released by UN Women in November 2020 clearly shows that even though there has been an obvious increase in the workloads across the board, women are bearing the brunt in comparison to men.
According to the data provided in the report, women were putting in three times more hours on unpaid domestic work during the pre-pandemic times. The International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2018 reported that if the 16 billion hours which are spent on unpaid caring every day were paid at a reasonable rate, it would equate to almost a tenth of the world’s total economic output.
As people try to balance work and their personal lives in a hybrid future, we are presented with an unprecedented opportunity to re-evaluate the division of unwaged work amongst both genders.
Almost a third of women account for spending more hours cooking and serving food, in comparison to just below a fifth of men. Almost 50% of total men report that they do not typically participate in the preparation of food at all.
The debate over the recognition and reward system of unpaid work was reignited in the wake of a landmark ruling in China in which the court ordered the husband to pay a one-off payment of $7,700 to his wife in return for all the housework she had done during their 5-year marriage.
China’s new marriage law allows the party which had undertaken most of the childcare and domestic responsibilities within a marriage to demand compensation for it during a divorce.
Zara, an executive at a telecommunications corporation in UAE and a single mother to a 2-year-old son has found work from home to be her knight in the shining armour. She says, “I have gladly passed better paying job offers for my current role simply because it allows me to manage my childcare duties alongside my work-related tasks. Earlier I used to feel guilty for leaving my son with my mother while I left for office but now that I have this newfound autonomy to plan my work hours around my son’s needs, I divide my time with a deeper sense of responsibility now that the guilt does not weigh on me and affect my productivity at work. Honestly, this is the best shot for people like me who have to play the role of a bread earner and a caregiver simultaneously.”
When looking at childcare research conducted by IPSOS – a leading market research firm based in Paris- in 16 countries for UN Women showed that prior to the pandemic, women spent 26 hours per week on average, taking care of children, against an average of 20 hours a week spent by men. After the pandemic and its resultant lockdowns, the figure has further increased by 5.2 hours for women and only 3.5 hours for men. Hence, the average woman is now spending almost the equivalent of full-time employment doing unpaid childcare that makes a full working day every week more than the average man.
The research proves that childcare varies by sex and that there are significant regional differences. Even though every country studied under the survey reflected an increase, the most profound effects were observed in countries that are less affluent such as countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa against wealthier nations.
The overall result is that the slow progress towards gender equality – which was achieved in the last few decades – has not only stalled but is being reversed.
Over 28 million women above the age of 25 have been estimated to have left the labour market altogether in 55 high- and middle-income countries during the last year already, in comparison to 24 million men. The fact that there was already less probability of women being a part of the workforce in the first place, these conditions pose a serious threat to the economic status of a large number of women. Globally, it is projected that the pandemic will force around another 47 million women and girls into extreme poverty during 2021.
To make matters worse, despite the more than sufficient evidence proving that women are disproportionately suffering financially from the impact of COVID-19. A majority of the measures that have been taken by policy-makers have not done much to curtail the increased burden on women.
However, some noteworthy exceptions are the increases in monthly child allowance payments in countries like Argentina, expansion of the paid parental leave programmes in Belgium and Italy, and the provision of extra support for childcare. These measures have been put in place either through keeping nurseries and crèches open in countries like Australia or providing compensation to parents affected by closures such as in South Korea and Germany. While measures like the Chinese court’s ruling are a step in the right direction for gender equality, a lot remains to be done to address this issue.
Disclaimer: The names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of the contributors.