Everyday family life in April 2020: A young woman and mother of two children leaves the house in the morning to go to work. She is considered an essential worker and just increased her hours last week. Before the birth of her second child, she only worked part-time. But her husband is self-employed and since the pandemic, his work has dried up, so now the family needs her to bring home a full salary. Fortunately, the family is also eligible for parental benefits and her husband has recently applied for an extension.
The coronavirus pandemic is turning family and work routines upside-down and revealing that many things that once seemed impossible for this small family can, in fact, become reality: He is spending more time with the kids, just like he always wanted to. She is receiving the professional recognition that she often missed. What would happen if such role reversals were no longer the exception but the norm?
In Germany, as in many other countries, the division of both paid and unpaid labour is very unequal. Men spend about three hours more per weekday on paid work than women. But they also spend less than half as much time as women on housework and childcare. Similar imbalances exist when it comes to family-related gaps in employment – despite the fact that since the introduction of parental benefits, more and more fathers have been taking advantage of parental leave. Today, roughly one third of fathers take time off from work, though this is time often limited to the two additional months that are provided by law when leave is split between both parents.
Fundamental changes in this gendered division of labour – such as those that occurred in many households in the first weeks after schools and daycare centres closed – could lead to a massive reduction in gender inequality.
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In Germany, the unadjusted gender pay gap – in other words the difference in income between employed men and women – is a bit over 20 percent. While the reasons for this include the different career choices made by men and women as well as wage discrimination, the primary drivers are the differences in work experience and the fact that when many women return to work after taking leave, they accept jobs that do not reflect their qualifications and end up working part-time. By the time parents reach retirement, the consequences of an unequal division of paid and unpaid work are even more pronounced: In the former East German states, the gender pension gap is approximately 30 percent; in former West Germany, this figure rises to over 60 percent. In other words, that »little bit of housework« does not do itself – a fact that should have become obvious to even the greatest sceptics during the recent period of nonstop home office. Instead, it accumulates and leads to significant financial disadvantages.
And that is not the only reason to welcome a shift in roles: The unequal division of paid and unpaid work also does not reflect the desires of men and women. When parents of young children are asked about the ideal division of family and paid work, around three quarters of fathers say that they would like to spend fewer hours working and more time with their children. However, mothers – including those who work part-time – do not necessarily want to spend more time at work. For those whose partners work full time, and perhaps even overtime, such a scenario would be especially difficult.
Is the shift in roles that we have observed during this period of short-time work, stay-at-home orders and the closures of schools and daycare centres likely to continue? In theory, the changes to daily life brought about by the coronavirus pandemic could serve as a starting point for just such a scenario. But a series of developments are already pointing in another direction: If schools and daycares only reopen gradually and no other options to relieve the burden on parents are created, many families will still find themselves needing to provide round-the-clock care. For most families, decisions on which parent will return to their job once this is allowed will be based on economic factors. While this is understandable, it will only serve to further reinforce the inequalities described above. Families in which the woman’s profession is considered essential, while the man works in a field that is particularly at risk may represent an exception, since here the shift in normative roles has already become ingrained in everyday life. Certainly it would be ideal if the coronavirus pandemic also inspired us to think critically about shifting roles and their potential benefit to society.
Lena Hipp is a professor of social structure analysis at the University of Potsdam and heads a research group at the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre. She joined Die Junge Akademie in 2017.