Why Quarantine Could — But Won’t — Change Gender Roles at Home

You’re more likely to find a 12-pack of hand sanitizer at Rite Aid

Photo: Maskot/Getty Images

When my daughter’s school announced in March it was closing over coronavirus fears, her classmates' moms immediately started texting each other to share thoughts and tips for getting through the weeks ahead. They knew that the burden of providing childcare would mostly fall on their shoulders, on top of the grocery shopping, soap buying, and all the other domestic work they were already handling.

With no children’s camps in sight for this summer and uncertainty about what schools will do come September, women who normally function as the family’s primary caregiver, cook, shopper, and housekeeper—in addition to their full-time jobs—could see their newly unforgiving workload stretching well into the foreseeable future.

Should that happen, the pandemic is set to have an unprecedented impact on gender roles in America—widening an already monumental labor gap at home at a time when women have been doing more in the workforce than ever.

Some journalists and academics are a lot more optimistic than I am that Covid-19 will actually force more men to take on domestic responsibilities because of the disproportionate number of women holding essential jobs. With more women working as grocery store clerks, teachers, nurses, pharmacists, and respiratory therapists, the idea is that men—now home more than ever—will have to start pitching in more around the house. Economists from Northwestern University and the University of California San Diego even think we may see a cultural shift around gender roles like the one after World War II when millions of women entered the labor force to take jobs in factories and other workplaces to replace male employees off at war. That shift, they note, forever changed women’s work participation in this country. They think that because of Covid-19, fathers will become the primary childcare providers in a large number of families across the United States and that, in turn, will change social norms “towards more equality in the provision of child care and house work.”

As nice as that sounds, a cultural shift that favors women in this country is about as likely as finding a 12-pack of hand sanitizer at Rite Aid.

In a country where women are denigrated, it’s unthinkable to want to be feminine.

Maybe I’m being excessively cynical, and some men, suddenly getting a closer look at the often-invisible labor women do at home, will start pulling their weight or even taking over the majority of domestic work willingly. But most men handling childcare or staying at home these next few months will be doing so because they’ve lost their jobs—with profound consequences for their senses of self. We can’t underestimate how feelings of emasculation around job loss and doing “women’s work” will affect men’s willingness to stay at home once the crisis is over.

That’s why you can’t really compare what happened during World War II to what’s happening now—because there’s a big difference in how we value what’s traditionally considered men and women’s work.

When women went to work in factories in the 1940s, they were made to feel as if their social position was elevated—what woman wouldn’t want to be more like a man? And men themselves were cast as heroes in the most traditionally masculine role of all: warrior. There will be no equivalent pride around men taking on traditionally female roles in our pandemic world. If anything, there will be shame. It’s the same reason our culture is more comfortable with a tomboy than a little boy who likes to play with dolls or wear dresses. In a country where women are denigrated, it’s unthinkable to want to be feminine.

It’s far more likely that women’s second shift will become a third or a fourth one. Women will continue doing essential work outside the home and keep on being the primary managers of all things domestic. Because even if men are put in a position to physically take care of children during the day, there’s still the matter of the mental load women carry—from keeping track of the next dentist’s appointment to noting when the family needs to restock on toilet paper. That kind of essential but invisible work is going to be much harder to shift on to men.

I’d like to believe that if Covid-19 makes unequal domestic labor arrangements even more intense, women will rise up in a massive backlash that forces the issue back into public consciousness. The gender gap at home is one of the only areas where feminists haven’t been able to make broad progress on—maybe these third and fourth shifts will be the last straw. What’s more likely, I fear, is that more women, exhausted from doing everything at home, will drop out of the workforce.

Meanwhile, the texts in my mom group are getting more and more desperate. One friend told me that she homeschools her kids from morning until 2 p.m., then will “tie on my apron in breaks to keep up with laundry,” and finally is able to start her own (very important!) work in the late afternoon.

I’m finishing this column at 11 p.m. on a Sunday—so you can bet that I relate.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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