Covid-19 and the Centrality of Care

Final Report: COVID-19 and the Centrality of Care

Professor Sara Cantillon, Dr Michele Hilton Boon and Dr Nina Teasdale

29 March 2023

Today at the WiSE Centre for Economic Justice we publish our report ‘COVID-19 and the Centrality of Care’. The report was commissioned by The Office of the Chief Social Policy Adviser, Scottish Government, as part of a grant funding call for expert reviews to inform the work of the COVID-19 Learning and Evaluation Oversight Group.

Our report focuses on research exploring the extent of pandemic-induced (temporary) shifts in unpaid domestic and care roles within households, and the potential longer-term impacts on the gendered organisation of work and family life. The report highlights the complex picture of peoples’ lived realities and the ongoing policy work and social action that is required to support disruptions to social norms around unpaid care.

It is well known that unpaid care continues to perpetuate gender inequalities, affecting women and girls’ social and economic empowerment, particularly the most disadvantaged and vulnerable (ILO, 2018; Oxfam, 2020). Although previous economic crises have not triggered radical changes to gender roles (Rubery and Rafferty, 2013), the COVID-19 pandemic has represented a more radical shift in the volume of unpaid household and care work which had to be reconciled simultaneously with paid employment. Our report includes findings from two distinct but related research activities. First, a systematic review (SR) of the academic and grey literature was undertaken on the distribution of unpaid care work during the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has been shaped across gender, social class and ethnicity. Second, to complement the systematic review, 24 couple and individual qualitative interviews were undertaken allowing for rich insight into the experiences of opposite-sex households in Scotland. Interviewing couples both together and separately allowed us to gain insight from both partners and was important as often it is women who are interviewed as representatives of the household.

What we found

From just under 7000 studies, 57 were reviewed for our systematic review cutting across 12 countries – a substantial evidence base. We found that during periods of stay-at-home regulations, school closures, or pandemic-related employment changes, the time spent by men on both housework and childcare increased, but so did the time spent by women. On average, women spent more time than men on both housework and childcare, both before and during the pandemic. Overall, there was conflicting evidence as to whether the gender gap in the division of unpaid care labour changed and although the pandemic offered opportunities to redefine gender roles for some families, pre-existing gender inequalities and norms did not disappear. Most studies were conducted in the first six months of the pandemic, but a small number of more recent studies found that any initial narrowing of the gender gap was temporary and faded out over time.

In terms of key evidence gaps we found that there was limited evidence about how unpaid care of adults was affected, how socio-economic class influenced experiences and no studies provided information on how the gendered division of unpaid care varied among different ethnic groups. Further, our interviews revealed a complex picture, reinforcing the importance of both quantitative and qualitative research evidence to understand the nuances of why gendered norms and practices around unpaid care endure and where they are being disrupted or ‘undone’. Both women and men that we interviewed expressed gender egalitarian attitudes; all couples stated that their dual earnings were important to their household income and believed that caring and household responsibilities should be shared. ‘Lived egalitarianism’ (Usdansky, 2011) was not, however, a reality for all the participants and the negotiation of household and care labour was said to be pragmatic – dependent on different variables including the job market, working hours, stage in the life-course and childcare availability. Key to men’s increased role in household and unpaid care during the pandemic for our interviewees was whether their partner was a key worker and had to attend the workplace.  Also important was whether men had more flexibility than their partner in terms of their working patterns and schedule.

‘Preferences’ for household chores were said to influence and shape the gendered division of labour, with examples of men adopting tasks stereotypically perceived as ‘female’, as well as ‘gatekeeping’ tendencies (Gaunt, 2008). The men interviewed all engaged in caring responsibilities and stressed the importance of being ‘involved fathers’ (Atkinson, 2022) and talked about the influence of their own father’s engagement in unpaid work when they were children. Many respondents stressed that the lockdown measures and pandemic-induced home working environments created opportunities for sharing care and household work.

Key Policy Implications

Our findings serve to highlight how policy might be harnessed to facilitate ‘deeper’ shifts in attitudes and social norms to support longer-term changes in the gendered distribution of labour. Key policy areas that need revisiting are: early years and childcare; home and flexible working arrangements and paternity and parental leave. In particular, we would like to see unpaid care prioritized on the long-term political agenda (Care Collective, 2020). This we suggest requires an integrated and cross-cutting approach across policy and institutions. Outlined in the report are four pathways to support the framing of policy learning and policy-decisions (Cantillon and Teasdale, 2021). Policy learnings are necessary across all four pathways to recognise, reduce and redistribute unpaid work to support gender equality (Elson, 2017) and the building of a more resilient and equitable society in Scotland in the face of ongoing and multiple crises, including the current cost of living crisis.

The full report can be accessed here: PDF_COVID-19 and the Centrality of Care DIGITAL

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