Pandemic paradox: Women (again) bear the brunt

Women are disproportionately becoming key bread winners.

Dr. Efrat Herzberg-Drucker (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Efrat Herzberg-Drucker
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I’m writing this column on the third Sunday in June, which Americans observe as Father’s Day. A popular media narrative tells of dads, locked down by the pandemic and working from home, rediscovering their children, increasingly caring for and playing with them and thus improving family dynamics, perhaps forever.
For instance, a New York Times article by journalist Martin Gelin cites a study finding that “45 percent of American fathers are spending more time on childcare than they did before the pandemic. ‘The pandemic has reshaped the way fathers are involved with their families and children,’ Craig Garfield, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University, said when the study was presented. This might end with the pandemic, of course, when quarantine is over and most Americans return to regular work routines. But what if it’s the beginning of a more significant shift?” To explore whether the ‘Dad is Back’ story holds true in Israel, I spoke by email with Efrat Herzberg-Druker, post-doctoral student in the University of Haifa’s Department of Sociology. Together with Dr. Tali Kristal and Prof. Meir Yaish, she has completed an initial study of coronavirus and inequality in Israel, titled “Work and Families in Times of Crisis.” They studied 940 Israeli Jewish couples with children under 18 who reside in the same household. The first wave compares information on employment and job characteristics in the first week of March (before the economic downturn) and in the last week of April, after the economy was shut down, but before it was reopened.
Here are a few key facts, sadly countering the ‘dad is back’ story and showing how again, in time of crisis, women bear the brunt. The paradox is: As women do proportionately more unpaid household work and childcare, they have had to bear disproportionately the unemployment as well as, often, role of bread winner during the pandemic crisis. And largely, without any gold medals.
In an increasing number of Israeli married couples, women pursue careers. Some 39% of all husband-wife households are full-time dual employees – both husband and wife work. In the past “unpaid work at home was gendered; a large share of housework was under women’s responsibility.” This still appears to be the case.
At the same time, women are disproportionately becoming key bread winners. The study finds: “Only 58% of dual-earner families in the first week of March remained dual-earner families by the peak of the crisis in April. Some 33% of these families, moreover, lost one earner (21% become men-single earner families and 12% became women-single earner families), and in 9% of the cases, both spouses lost their employment (whether they were forced to take an unpaid leave or were laid off).” The coronavirus lockdown has hit families hard.
The study continues: “Among men single-earner families at the beginning of March, 29% lost their only earner by the end of April. Women single-earner families were affected by the crisis even more severely. In these families, 38% of the earners lost their employment and subsequently their only source of income.
“Similarly, amid households with only a single parent, 29% of the men and 40% of the women lost their jobs by April. Within the Israeli family, then, women seemingly had to absorb the larger share of the shock caused by the coronavirus pandemic.”
Moreover, “the economic hardship following the coronavirus crisis pushed some 12% of the women in what used to be men-single earner families in March into the paid economy by April. The equivalent proportion for men is lower than half of this figure, estimated in our data to be as low as 5%. This indicates that in times of crisis, when the only earners in an Israeli family lost employment, more Israeli women than men took responsibilities also for the families’ economic wellbeing.” Has the prevailing gender inequality in the division of unpaid labor decreased as fathers invest more time in housework and care due to the rise in demand for unpaid work and the fall in paid labor outside the household? Or, has the increase in demand for housework and care satisfied mainly by mothers, increased the level of inequality in unpaid labor due to the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic?
We found that despite the increase in the demand for unpaid labor – both in housework and childcare, its gender division did not change. Although men have increased their time in childcare, they decreased their time in housework. Approximately 60% of the burden falls on women – before and after the outbreak of coronavirus.
The recent article in the ‘New York Times,’ by Martin Gelin, “The Pandemic Has Reshaped American Fatherhood. Can It Last?”, cited above, claims that evidence from Sweden shows even short stints of time at home for fathers can have long-term consequences.
Is there any evidence, in your study, that Israeli fathers are spending more time on child care than they did? If so will this likely last in your opinion? Are these short term stints at home (for fathers) likely to have long term impacts, in your opinion, as sociologists?
We do find that fathers have increased their time invested in childcare due to coronavirus outbreak. However, this change does not occur in all the dual-earner households equally. We found that these changes are mostly related to changes in men’s employment status between March and April. When men reduced their employment, we find that they took more childcare on themselves. However, if their employment status did not change, they did not contribute to the increase in demand for childcare, and their wives took the entire burden.
“We are not optimistic regarding a permanent change. We found that the changes in men’s care time were among men whose employment status changed from full-time employment to part-time employment. However, we know that men do not usually work in these patterns; therefore, we assume that as employment patterns of men will return to full-time employment as they were before the outbreak of coronavirus, they will return to their pre-pandemic care patterns.
You write that in times of crisis, when the single earners in an Israeli family lost employment, more Israeli women than men took responsibilities also for the families’ economic wellbeing. Moreover, I note that women’s unpaid work in the home has been imputed as worth fully 9% of Israel’s GDP – but it does not appear anywhere in GDP data! That is a staggering $35 billion!
Women do take more on themselves – both in terms of paid work and unpaid work. The patterns of women in unpaid labor are a well-known fact and evidence-based in numerous studies in recent decades. However, the fact that women also take more employment burden in times of crisis to assist their families is less known. This finding highlights the dual-shifts women hold as they have increased their paid employment and did not change their unpaid employment in the households despite having greater means.
What is your take on the current alleged ‘second wave’? Increase in cases, as a sociologist – will it prove impossible to do the kind of lockdown done in March and April, because people will resist? What can sociology contribute to the public health and economic debate?
We are engaged in the sociology of inequality and stratification. Therefore, our research deals with inequality aspects of the crisis and the short- and long-term effects of lockdown on inequality within and between families. If we are approaching a second lockdown, we expect that it will increase the disparities between families. Moreover, we expect it will deepen the economic hardship that families affected by the first lockdown are still experiencing. As we know, unemployment rates are still high and many specific industries have not returned to their pre-pandemic activities.
Please tell us about the next stage of your research. What are you researching, what are your hypotheses?
We are now collecting the next wave of data. With these data, we will be able to examine the extent to which families affected by the crisis have returned to their pre-pandemic patterns in terms of paid employment and unpaid labor. Moreover, we are collecting data regarding changes in gender ideology and attitudes and we will be able to examine the extent to which the pandemic has led to changes in those areas as well.
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The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at