Where are the dads’ voices during Covid-19?

It’s Father’s Day at the weekend and a good time to consider what Covid-19 could tell us about gender equality.

Dad working at home


It’s Father’s Day on Sunday and dads have not been heard much during the pandemic. While there have been a lot of early studies on who is doing most of the homeschooling/childcare and who is more likely to have lost their jobs, there have also been those that show that some dads are doing more than they used to do. In the context of everyone doing more than they used to do when it comes to the home front, that is to be expected. The big question is, of course, how much more in relation to the extra that women are doing. How much has the expectation that most of this falls on women really changed and what will be the impact, if so?

Our recent survey of mums in the early days of lockdown found quite a significant gender split. Just 21% of mums said they felt they were sharing childcare and homeschooling equally. When you drill down to the reasons given, they vary greatly. The main reason given is that their partner works longer hours or more intensively than they do [39%]. This is followed by the observation that the mums have always been the main carer.  Other reasons given include that the partner is a key worker, earns more, has to take more work calls during the day, is not the father of the children in the house, that the mum is “more patient” and engaged in home education and that the partner is lazy or not interested. Of course, many of these require interrogating in themselves…

Clearly the studies so far show that, unlike the 2008 recession which affected male-dominated sectors more, some of the hardest hit sectors are ones where women dominate, such as hospitality and retail, which means women have been more likely to have lost their jobs, had their hours reduced or been furloughed. Add discrimination and social expectations to this and you have an even more negative outlook.

However, the picture is complicated. For instance, women are also more likely to dominate in frontline jobs in health, education and care. If their partner has been furloughed or working from home while they have been out working, they will have had to become the primary care giver. Add to the mix that there are a large number of single mums working in the care sector.

Giving average figures may obscure the picture in particular sectors and for particular demographics and family set-ups.

For each household there are different sets of circumstances and potentially different outcomes. In some respects the pandemic could drive greater equality and bring a bigger focus on the homefront and how vital it is to equality at work; on the other hand, given the economic outlook, the fact women are still seen as the primary carer by many and the likelihood that childcare will be very squeezed in the future, with fewer parents using it due to risk/finance issues, ongoing chronic underfunding and so forth, the pattern we have already seen of women reducing their hours and losing their jobs, thus cementing their primary carer role, is likely to have a marked effect.

How patterns are formed

When I think of my own situation, I do the homeschooling and work has been busier than usual so it’s a bit of a double whammy. My partner is on leave and does the cooking and shopping once a week, but he likes cooking [I do most of the washing up] and he’s a key worker so he can get into the shops early.

On the other hand, I am more into education, know the British system better as he is Catalan and went to university so am more able to talk through things like Ucas with daughter two. It makes sense that I take care of the home education front. I’m also more used to being with the kids as I have been mainly based at home for years so I know what approaches work better, though they are not always – or even generally – successful. You could ask why I changed my entire career to ensure I was able to look after the kids and he didn’t, even though I am the main earner and he worked shifts in the early days so had days when he was at home with the kids. I guess it was more important to me, but why was that? Because I am female, because social expectations make it easier, because I grew up in a single parent household and that has significantly affected my approach to life generally while he grew up with a very traditional dad when it came to gender…? Who knows? There are layers on layers on layers.

Lockdown has moved all of this to another extreme. I do the kids and my partner does the cooking. Trying to change set patterns is hard. They grow up without you even being aware because you are too tired to change them. Hopefully, younger people have a greater awareness of this kind of thing before they hit the exhaustion years and social expectations are changing.

What is clear is that there will be a large number of studies on the gender impact of COVID-19 – depending on how much such types of study escape higher education funding cuts – and dissecting them in detail will shed more light on what is actually happening and what action might be taken to drive the gender equality agenda forward.

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