Editor’s Note: The following essay is the third post in our week-long symposium on how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect family life.
We have had serious and prolonged recessions before. But this time, things are different. Generally, it is men’s jobs that are lost in the face of tough economic times. Even in the Great Depression, when millions of men were out of work, many women remained employed and many others joined the workforce to shore up household incomes—over that decade, the female labor force participation rate rose 24%.
In every recession since, because women were less likely to lose their jobs, working women’s wages provided families insurance against hardship. In the current situation, however, sectors that employ women are just as likely, if not more likely, to be affected by the shutdown as are those that employ men: service, retail, hospitality, travel, and education are all sectors that employ large numbers of women who are now, or will soon be, out of work.
How men and women divide their responsibilities within the home is rarely a negotiated process.
At the same time, families are being cut off from the markets that have grown to replace all of the goods and services that women once produced in the home. This means more home-cooked meals, more parental child care, more housework (because people who never leave the house make a huge mess), and more home production than any of us have seen in decades. All this is taking place while many men and women are working from home—and all while we are trying to manage the stress of being in the midst of a health and financial crisis.
It’s not a great time for families. But maybe it presents an opportunity? How men and women divide their responsibilities within the home is rarely a negotiated process. It starts out with assumptions, social norms, and often babies that require more care from their mothers than their fathers. With the level of work needed to raise a family laid bare by the pandemic, more couples will be sitting down to discuss how to make this work. We know that in countries where men take even just a few weeks of parental leave with their newborns, those men later spend more time with their children. Maybe a few weeks—or months—of self isolating with the family will have the same effect.
Dr. Marina Adshade is a faculty member at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia and the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University. Her book, Dollars and Sex: How economics influences sex and love, has been published in 10 different languages and is available in bookstores around the globe.