The Asymmetric Effects Of COVID-19 on the Labor Market Performance of Mothers and Fathers

COVID-19 confinement measures imposed a tremendous burden on families with young children: schooling and childcare had to be provided in the family home, alongside regular professional duties. In this note, we examine the asymmetric way in which the confinement impacted the sharing of household tasks between mothers and fathers and the corresponding implications for labor market performance.

The world has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 virus. At its most extreme to date, the pandemic forced people in most countries to long periods of domestic confinement or even lockdown in the early Spring of 2020. (A repetition of those harsh constraints may be imminent for Switzerland and other European countries, should the second wave of COVID-19 infections, which we are presently experiencing, intensify.) During the roughly two months of confinement experienced worldwide (first wave), those who were able to work from home were encouraged or even mandated to do so; those considered to perform essential work were allowed to work on-site, when necessary; those whose work could not be performed remotely and were not engaged in essential occupations were at greater risk of job loss. The goal of this note is to highlight the important ways in which confinement imposed very unequal constraints and barriers to men and women, focusing attention on the labor market performance of parents of younger children.

Confinement had tremendous impact on the way people live their lives: children could not go to school (although online teaching was sometimes provided); it was no longer possible to eat at a restaurant; and domestic tasks (like cleaning, cooking and doing laundry) could no longer be outsourced. Elder family members were also no longer able to assist with childcare as they faced a higher risk of infection. As a result, families were suddenly burdened with all these additional tasks. Clearly, the demographics of households greatly impacted the degree in which these tasks affected people’s time and their ability to continue to perform their professional obligations adequately, whenever those obligations remained compatible with remote working conditions.

In addition to the potential magnification of the normal responsibilities people face, the new workload had to be performed all in the same place (the family home) and at the same time. Indeed, children were present and had to be attended to, fed and entertained during normal business hours. Since these circumstances were not planned or expected, many families certainly faced important logistical issues in finding space and appropriate conditions for parents and children alike to carry out their obligations. This in addition to a potential lack of connectivity devices as, in times like these, a tablet or a computer was as much a source of entertainment as it was a work or schooling tool, as well as a potential lack of a reliable internet connection, capable of accommodating vastly higher demands.  (Some of these issues were highlighted in our own BFH employee survey regarding working conditions during Corona, as well as e.g. the positive aspects of the greater work flexibility and reduced commuting time.)

Contrary to typical recessions of a fully economic nature, where it is predominately male jobs that are lost, this health driven economic crisis has led to a more symmetric pattern of job loss/furloughs across genders. This was the case since women tend to work in sectors that were severely affected by the confinement restrictions. Together with the background for potential domestic chaos, described above, it is natural to wonder how families managed to deal with the new and greater responsibilities. Concretely, did mothers and fathers share the new tasks equally?

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a great deal of academic research on this topic. Several researchers (e.g. Farré et al. (2020), Biroli et al. (2020), Del Boca et al. (2020)) carried out household surveys of time use during the confinement period’s first wave in a variety of countries, namely Spain, Italy, the UK and the USA. Previous to the confinement period, women spent more hours than men, on average, on household tasks such as cleaning and childcare. A robust finding across this emerging literature is that, although fathers increased the time they put into those tasks, mothers also increased the time they devoted to them and thus continued to shoulder most of the time burden of housework and childcare globally considered. During the pandemic, mothers were doing more of the childcare and home schooling, often irrespective of their partner’s professional situation, while the degree to which fathers took on additional household responsibilities was more dependent on the employment situation of their partners. Further, men tended to increase their time participation more in childcare than in housework (Del Boca et al., Farré et al.). Carlson et al. (2020) report that, concerning childcare, mothers did more of the homework supervision and fathers more of the play; in household tasks, fathers especially increased time devoted to grocery shopping. The asymmetric effect of confinement on shopping activities, largely taken over by men, is confirmed by other studies as well (e.g. Birolli et al., Farré et al.). This activity became, in severely locked down countries, the only opportunity to leave the house.

While the number of hours devoted to domestic tasks is an important indicator of the asymmetric effects of the pandemic on the time left for work for mothers and fathers, the quality and continuity of the time for work is also a factor for high concentration tasks like academic writing. Along these lines, some research has uncovered the relative decline in submissions of academic papers by women compared to men (Amano-Patiño et al. (2020)), although those effects are sometimes quantitatively small (Fuchs-Shundeln, 2020).

Going beyond a direct economic focus, research has also shed light on how the pandemic affected the prevalence of other issues, such as mental health and domestic violence. Regarding mental health, the negative impact of the pandemic appears to have been more severe on women (Etheridge and Spantig, 2020; Beland et al. 2020; Adams-Prassl 2020), while the evidence on domestic violence is more mixed (Brülhart and Lalive, 2020; Beland et al., 2020).

While the picture painted above is particularly grim for mothers, there are nonetheless some signs of hope on the horizon. The necessity to work from home greatly accelerated existing trends for remote work and telecommuting. Continuing this path of enhancing more flexible working arrangements will certainly help women in sustaining greater degrees of labor market attachment (although it may also lead women to specialize in low- or middle-tier jobs which tend to be more accommodating of informal working arrangements (Hupkau and Petrongolo (2020)). In addition, the pandemic forced fathers to experience first-hand routine elements of a typical mother’s daily tasks and their intensity, and, as seen, to share them to some extent. In those cases where mothers were essential workers and their partners not, for example, data suggest that many fathers stepped up and took care of the necessary household tasks formerly in charge of their partners (Farré et al.). The reason this matters is the potential for such experiences to be transformative of the culture and values that shape the daily division of tasks in the family, and, if so, to influence that division of labor in a more equitable and persistent way into the future, giving mothers a more equal chance to fully participate in the labor market. In the past century, during WWII, when American women had to go into the labor market because men were off fighting the war, this was also a transformative experience which changed the culture in the labor market and the societal acceptance of women as workers (Acemoglu et al. (2004), Fernández et al. (2004)). The mothers of today may well be keeping their fingers crossed that the pandemic demands of permanent co-residence under confinement will likewise have a culture-changing effect.

Beyond passive hope, concrete measures may assist families in getting over the massive turbulence that the pandemic brought to the world’s economy. The acute problem facing working parents during temporary confinement periods is that of having to perform two full-time jobs: regular work plus educator/childcare provider. The pandemic has reenacted, in practice, a new necessity for childcare which fully resembles post-birth needs, only childcare cannot be provided externally to the family due to the pandemic’s own health constraints. In the US, for example, “hundreds of thousands of women — nearly eight times more than the number of men — dropped out of the US labor force last month, as the pandemic continues to exacerbate inequalities in America’s economy.” Thus, policies that maintain links to an existing employer but allow parents to take time off to care for their children – without promotion or other penalties – would certainly alleviate the temporary emergence of those dual responsibilities. One such concrete measure would be a partially paid family leave to be taken by one of the parents, and of up to 100% of a full-time position. Since conventional maternity leave vastly exceeds the emerging paternity leave about to be implemented in Switzerland, and in connection with the cultural issues discussed above associated with the splitting of household tasks, the better policy would subsidize a greater share of the income of fathers if they took the leave (say 80%), compared to mothers (who would receive only 60% of their wage during the leave). This would encourage families to finally choose the “father” as the “stay-at-home” parent without facing significant income losses. This policy could be funded in the same terms as maternity and paternity leave policies or offered to workers as a long-duration loan, paid out in very small monthly wage deductions.

A host of policy suggestions have been proposed in the literature (see e.g. Alon et al. (2020)). These include measures that encourage the continuation of employment for parents who need to provide childcare – they would entail the corresponding subsidizing of wages by the (Federal) government – as well as policies for universities to extend tenure clocks for faculty members with children under the age of 14, with similar provisions for other employers with up-or-out promotion systems.


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AUTHOR: Ana Fernandes

Prof. Ana Fernandes ist Forscherin und Dozentin an der Business School der Berner Fachhochschule. Sie promovierte 1999 in Wirtschaftswissenschaften an der University of Chicago und forschte zu den Themen Finanzen, Altruismus im Kontext der Familie und Entwicklungsökonomie.

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