Health and Healthcare Systems

COVID-19: How women are bearing the burden of unpaid work

Women gender equality employment work inequality COVID-19 coronavirus

Coronavirus has increased the time women spend caring for children and other dependents. Image: REUTERS/Hayam Adel

Alex Thornton
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Education, Gender and Work

  • A Chinese divorce court has ordered a man to compensate his wife for the childcare and housework she did during their five-year marriage.
  • But the first-of-its-kind ruling has sparked debate over how we should put a value on unpaid work.
  • COVID-19 restrictions have resulted in a larger increase in unpaid work for men than men, according to a UN report.
  • Evidence shows that COVID-19 is reinforcing traditional social and cultural gender norms.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic downturn it has caused, have hit everyone hard. But the impact has not been spread equally. A report in November by UN Women found clear evidence that, although both genders have seen their unpaid workloads increase, women are bearing more of the burden than men.

Before the pandemic, women were spending on average three times as many hours on unpaid domestic and caring work - and this contribution was grossly undervalued. The ILO in 2018 reported that the 16 billion hours spent on unpaid caring every day would represent nearly a tenth of the world’s entire economic output if it was paid at a fair rate.

Now a landmark ruling in China which ordered a husband to pay his wife for the housework she had done during their five-year marriage has renewed debate around how we recognize and value unpaid work.

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Putting a price on unpaid work

Under China’s new marriage law, which came into effect at the start of this year, a clause entitles the party taking on more childcare and domestic duties to ask for compensation during a divorce, a lawyer told the South China Morning Post.

In the case in Beijing, the wife was awarded a one-off payment of $7,700 for housework she had done during their marriage.

But while it recognized the wife's contribution, the ruling ignited debate online about how we value unpaid work, with some claiming the payment was too little, reported the paper.

a chart showing how childcare is divided between men and women
Women still do much more than men. Image: “Whose time to care?”, UN Women

Putting in the extra hours

During the pandemic, widespread restrictions on daily life, school closures, disruption to businesses and a big rise in working from home have made many tasks more time-consuming and arduous.

As the following charts from the UN Women report show, more women than men have reported an increase in their workload in almost every aspect of domestic life.

The data also shows more men saying that they usually don’t do a particular task.

The average woman now spends nearly the equivalent of a full-time job doing unpaid childcare - a full working day a week more than the average man.

“Whose time to care?”, UN Women

Nearly a third of women report spending more time cooking and serving meals, compared to just under a fifth of men. Half of all men say they don’t normally get involved in preparing food at all.

a chart showing the division of domestic labour
Women are more likely to increase the time spent on household chores. Image: “Whose time to care?”, UN Women

A similar picture emerges when looking at childcare. Research for UN Women carried out by Ipsos in 16 countries showed that before the pandemic, women spent an average of 26 hours per week looking after children, compared to 20 hours a week for men. That has now risen by 5.2 hours for women, and just 3.5 hours for men. As a result, the average woman now spends nearly the equivalent of a full-time job doing unpaid childcare - a full working day a week more than the average man.

a chart showing how childcare differs by sex across countries
The time spent on childcare, as divided by sex, differs across countries. Image: “Whose time to care?”, UN Women

And as the chart shows, there are big regional differences. Although every nation surveyed showed a rise, the effects were most pronounced in less affluent countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa, compared to wealthier countries.

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Like mother, like daughter

The pandemic has reaffirmed the persistence of gender bias in social and cultural norms. All but a small fraction of men acknowledge that their wives or partners are doing more around the house, while just two-thirds of women say the same of their husbands or partners.

Perhaps more concerning for gender equality in the future is that parents are more likely to notice their daughter doing more to help than their sons.

a pie chart showing how women do more
Women bare the heaviest burden. Image: “Whose time to care?”, UN Women
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A reversal of progress made?

The overall effect is that the gradual progress towards gender equality seen in recent decades could not only stall, but be reversed.

Already more than 28 million women over the age of 25 are estimated to have left the labour market altogether in 55 high- and middle-income countries over the last year, compared to 24 million men. Given that women were already less likely to be in the workforce, this represents a serious threat to the economic status of huge numbers of women. On a global scale, it’s thought the pandemic will push a further 47 million women and girls into extreme poverty by 2021.

Despite the clear evidence that women are disproportionately suffering economically from the effects of the pandemic, the vast majority of measures that have been enacted by policy-makers do little to address the increased burden on women.

However, there are some notable exceptions: increases in monthly child allowance payments in places like Argentina, expanding paid parental leave programmes in Italy and Belgium, and providing extra support for childcare either by keeping crèches and nurseries open (as in Australia) or compensating parents affected by closures (as in Germany and South Korea).

While the Chinese court's ruling could prove a step in the right direction for gender equality.

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Health and Healthcare SystemsEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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