What the Coronavirus Lockdown Reveals about Parents Who Work

The coronavirus lockdown has pulled aside the curtain between family life and work life for women and men with children. Claire Cain Miller, writing for the New York Times, notes that parents, especially mothers, are expected by employers to keep family caregiving a private matter, not to be discussed or allowed to interfere with work responsibilities. During a recent consulting project at a large corporation, senior women shared with me in focus group discussions that “we have learned not to mention our families at work. Having a family is seen as a barrier to promotion, so we don’t mention them, even to each other. As women, we do each other a disservice not to talk about family challenges. We should share how we deal with them, but we don’t talk about this.”

The realities of family life are now on full display during the lockdown as women and men try to work full time from home while dealing with homeschooling, housework, and childcare. Just yesterday, during a business Zoom call, the three-year-old child of my client demanded attention “right now” and crawled into her mother’s lap in the middle of our call. She was very cute and an example of how it is no longer possible to hide the realities of family life.

The pandemic lockdown has also revealed the unequal distribution of labor in heterosexual couples. Claire Cain Miller writes in another article that while both women and men are doing more housework and childcare, a new poll by the New York Times of 2,200 Americans who work full time at home with children found the division of labor is not any more equitable now than it was before:

  • Of those polled, 70 percent of women say they’re fully or mostly responsible for the housework during lockdown, and 66 percent say so for childcare.
  • About 20 percent of men say they are fully or mostly responsible for these tasks during lockdown. Only around 2 percent of women agree.

Past research has consistently shown that men often overestimate the amount they do. In one humorous and enlightening example reported by Motoko Rich about this same problem in Japan, Rich gives the example of one couple where the man in the couple believed and declared he was doing a fair share of domestic chores during the lockdown. His wife then produced a meticulous spreadsheet showing her 210 tasks compared to his 21. He got more involved.

Miller further explains, “The additional time that women typically spend on domestic work, particularly child care, has significant consequences outside the home: It is a major reason for their lower pay and stunted career paths.” During the pandemic, research shows that women are doing less paid work when both parents are working remotely full time, which may have career consequences. In an article by Caroline Kitchener in the Lily, she notes that women in academia are submitting 50 percent fewer papers for publication during the lockdown, which “threatens to derail [their] careers” when institutions decide who to grant tenure to. At the same time, submissions for publication from men have increased more than 50 percent as they rely on women partners to do homeschooling and housework.

Will anything change after COVID-19 for working parents now that the challenges of family life are more visible? Miller notes that “unlike people in other advanced nations, American parents have little structural support.” She suggests that perhaps employers and the federal government will “recognize the need for things like paid leave, affordable child care, predictable schedules, reasonable hours and remote work.” Miller cites Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings, as saying, “The idea that if you want to be perceived as professional, you have to make believe like you don’t have children or other responsibilities? That’s certainly over for the time being, and I’d be surprised if it ever comes back in quite the same way.” Let’s hope not.


Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

1 thought on “What the Coronavirus Lockdown Reveals about Parents Who Work”

  1. I’ll be curious to see what US society has learned during these intense, incredible and sometimes inspiring past 6 months (and who knows how much longer?) There has been time to reflect for many of us lucky enough to work from home; more time with family has shed light on the realities of household equity; and of course the differing death rates from Covid-19 for People of Color have more clearly than ever pulled the curtain back on racial inequities and injustice. My sense is, a population of long-quarantined people now have the energy – and more clarity – to say “Enough” when it comes to police brutality and anti-Black racism. May it also be true for what we now have learned about the workplace and the homefront!


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