Gender, Working Parents, and the COVID-19 Pandemic in the United States

Rachel Rinaldo
University of Colorado Boulder

Ian Whalen
University of Colorado Boulder

Publication Date: 2020

Abstract

Families with young children have been hit hard by the shift to remote schooling and loss of childcare during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, working mothers were already struggling to negotiate paid work and family responsibilities. This qualitative study investigates the experiences of parents, especially working mothers, negotiating the demands of paid work and childcare responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most serious health disasters of the past century. Based on 33 virtual interviews with parents in the Boulder/Denver area conducted in June and July 2020, as well as an online survey with 299 responses, we find that mothers bore the burden of child care and remote schooling when schools were closed during spring 2020. Mothers also reported greater stress and anxiety. According to our interviews, husband job flexibility, wife breadwinner status, and previous commitments to gender equity mattered most for how tasks were divided or shared between parents in the household. Our findings suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified pre-existing gender inequalities and may have long-term consequences for women’s careers.

Introduction and Literature Review

The COVID-19 pandemic is remarkably different from other disasters in the 20th century. Rather than physical destruction, this disaster is a health crisis, and efforts to mitigate its spread include closures of schools. In the United States, this means that in spring 2020, K-12 schools in many states closed and shifted to education online. Many businesses have employees working remotely, while essential employees such as nurses and bus drivers are still working outside the house. Although distancing restrictions have eased, childcare options during summer and fall 2020 are still limited. Many school districts are planning to continue remote education or have children attending school on a hybrid model. Until a vaccine is widely distributed, the current situation is likely to continue through much of 2021. In this unprecedented situation, many working parents have children at home with little or no childcare assistance.

Sociologists have long examined how gender inequalities in the household affect women’s career possibilities. American cultural norms continue to associate childcare with women (Collins, 20191; Ridgeway, 20112), and many families believe that children must be carefully cultivated to succeed in a competitive economy (Lareau, 20113; Calarco, 20184). Moreover, the high cost of childcare in the United States is an obstacle, even for affluent families. Some women gravitate toward more flexible work that is more compatible with childcare, but such arrangements can result in lower pay and limited career mobility (Munsch et al., 20145; Munsch, 20166). Men are less likely to have flexible jobs and less likely to seek accommodations, including paternity leave (Coltrane et al., 20137). Persistent occupational segregation and wage inequality means that men are more likely to have higher-paying jobs, which are frequently characterized by long hours and expectations for constant availability (Cha & Weeden, 20148). The inability to reconcile work and family leads some women to leave the workforce (Blair-Loy, 20099; Damaske, 201110). These issues are even more difficult for single parents, who are more likely to be women. All of these factors intersected prior to the pandemic to shape a persistently gendered and unequal division of labor in heterosexual U.S. households with children. Women still tend to do the majority of domestic work, particularly tasks related to children’s health and education. Long before the pandemic, mothers who work for pay were struggling to balance their work and care responsibilities.

It is crucial to recognize that the coronavirus pandemic is a disaster. Thus, this research also builds on insights from the sociology of disasters and the study of epidemics as a particular kind of disaster in order to understand how such events have implications for gender and family life. Disasters tend to magnify pre-existing inequalities, and the gendered division of labor has often been a crucial source of vulnerability and disparity in disasters (Tobin-Gurley & Enarson, 201311; Enarson et al., 201712). For example, in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, women’s mortality in many Sri Lankan villages was higher than that of men because women were more likely to be at home or in coastal markets, while men were working in paid jobs further inland (Hyndman, 200813). However, epidemics are a type of disaster that is perhaps even more deeply intertwined with gender and sexuality. In both the recent Ebola epidemic and the ongoing AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, women were heavily burdened as primary caregivers, often sacrificing their own health and safety to carry out such responsibilities (Smith, 201914). During the Ebola epidemic in Liberia between 2013 and 2016, women were more impacted by unemployment, and it took them longer to re-enter the labor force, reversing gains in women’s income in that country (Burki, 202015). Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic is profoundly entangled with gender since women in the United States tend to bear the burden of childcare. This pandemic may, therefore, have dramatic implications for gender equality, particularly women’s employment and income earning.

Working mothers have been hit especially hard by the shift to remote schooling and loss of childcare. Recent large-scale studies show that mothers are more likely to be managing their children’s remote schooling; are interrupted more when working from home; and are more likely to have reduced their paid work hours or quit jobs to cope with their additional responsibilities (Carlson et al., 202016; Landivar et al., 202017). Based on a survey of parents in different-sex couples, men and women are both doing more housework and childcare than before the pandemic, but in couples where men were less involved in such tasks before the pandemic, women’s involvement in childcare and housework increased dramatically (Carlson et al., 2020). Carlson et al. estimate that roughly half of women in heterosexual households are doing most of the childcare and housework, but that men have increased their contributions to childcare and housework in the other half of such households. However, the female labor force participation rate declined from 57.9% in January 2020 to 54.7% in April 2020 (National Women’s Law Center, 202018) as over 800,000 women left the workforce between August and September 2020, compared to 216,000 men. A recent analysis by economist Tedeschi (202019) concludes that this drop likely represents women voluntarily or involuntarily leaving jobs due to lack of childcare/school. This could turn into a permanent loss of women from the U.S. workforce.

Thus, it is critical to gain a better understanding of the gendered consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, particularly with respect to the division of household labor among families with children out of school/daycare, as this may have long term implications for women’s career mobility and gender relations more generally. Although progress has been made in recent decades, heterosexual American households with children under 18 continue to have a gendered and unequal division of labor. Women continue to do more domestic work, particularly tasks related to children’s health and education contributing to the persistence of gender inequality. Before the pandemic, working mothers were struggling to negotiate paid work and family responsibilities. This qualitative study used in-depth interviews to investigate the experiences of parents, especially working mothers, negotiating the demands of paid work and childcare responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most serious health disasters of the past century.

Research Design

While there has been extensive media coverage of this issue, as well as large-scale surveys, as qualitative sociologists, we wanted to delve more deeply into the gender, family, and work dynamics shaping this situation. We were particularly interested in better understanding how working mothers were managing their new circumstances, with an eye toward the extent to which tasks such as childcare and managing remote schooling were shared between parents. The primary research questions for this study were:

1) What patterns are evident in how parents manage household labor, remote school, and childcare during the pandemic?

2) What mechanisms and processes are shaping this division of labor in the household, and how are partners negotiating sharing or splitting up tasks in their household?

From June through early July 2020, we conducted in-depth virtual interviews with 33 parents (23 women, 10 men – including one transman) in the Boulder/Denver area. Interviews were conducted via Zoom, Facetime, Google Meet, or by phone, depending on the interviewee’s preference. Most preferred Zoom. Interviews lasted from 20 minutes to an hour. Interviewees were asked a range of questions about the division of labor in their household and their experiences with childcare, domestic labor, and children’s education both before and during the pandemic. The interviews were recorded and later transcribed for qualitative analysis. We coupled the interviews with a national online survey using Qualtrics, which received 299 responses.

Because this was a short timeline, rapid response study, we were not able to engage in extensive outreach efforts. Interviewees were recruited through local Facebook groups for families, working mothers, LGBTQ parents, and Rinaldo's personal networks in the area. The online survey was distributed through Facebook and Twitter.

The interviewees were mostly highly educated (BA or beyond), married, white, heterosexual professionals with children under 18 living with them. The interview sample (33 total) included five LGBTQ parents, three people who identified as Hispanic/Latino, and three people who identified as Asian. We chose the Boulder/Denver area out of convenience, but it is a particularly interesting area for this research because it has the reputation of being relatively progressive when it comes to gender and sexuality. Indeed, many of our interviewees were conscious of gender inequalities both broadly and in their own lives.

The survey received more responses than expected (299), but like the interviewees, the respondents are mostly highly educated, white, middle class, women, likely a result of the survey being distributed through the authors’ social media networks. The survey was designed to be very similar to the interviews and contained multiple open-ended questions. While most survey researchers caution against such questions because respondents balk at them, we found that many respondents were eager to answer the open-ended questions and write about their experiences in this particular case. Overall, the responses to the survey closely mirror the interviews.

The positionality of the researchers is certainly important for interpreting this data and for considering its limitations. Rinaldo is a white, heterosexual, mother of a young child, and this study was directly inspired by the experiences of those in her social network. Her previous research has focused on understanding gender and religion in Indonesia (Rinaldo, 201320), including in the context of marriage and divorce. She brings a feminist lens and extensive ethnographic and qualitative research experience to this project. Ian Whalen is a graduate student in the department of sociology who is interested in gender, particularly queer masculinities.

While Rinaldo’s status as a working mother was especially helpful in connecting to other professional working mothers in the area, we also had unexpected success reaching out to LGBTQ parents through a local Facebook group. We found it difficult to access parents who were not from relatively well-educated or middle-class circumstances. As we discuss in the limitations section, we hope to obtain more funding to expand this study to encompass a much more diverse set of parents.

Dissemination of Results

We are still analyzing our data from the interviews and the survey. Thus far, we have written a post for the Gender & Society blog (https://gendersociety.wordpress.com/2020/10/14/working-mothers-and-the-covid-19-pandemic-in-the-us/) discussing some of the key themes from the interviews. This has been posted to the Facebook groups where we recruited for interviews. We are currently working on an article to submit to a sociology journal. Once this has been published, it will also be posted to the Facebook groups and our social media networks. Rinaldo has also submitted grant proposals to NSF and the Russell Sage Foundation in order to expand the research. Below, we discuss preliminary findings from the interviews. Because we have been focusing on the interview analysis, we have not yet had enough of a chance to analyze the survey data, so our preliminary findings are confined to a short description of the demographics and a few key themes at the end of the next section.

Preliminary Findings

In our interviews, working mothers felt overwhelmed by remote schooling and lack of childcare and voiced frustration, anger, stress, and sadness as well as feelings of being overwhelmed and exhausted. Many were concerned about their career prospects, and some discussed tensions in their marriages. Yet approximately a quarter of the working mothers we interviewed reported that their families managed the additional labor more equitably. The interviews further revealed the differences between working mothers who reported being substantially more burdened and those whose households seemed to be managing more equitably, which hinged especially on parents' job flexibility, particularly for men in heterosexual households.

Working Mothers Struggling with Extra Burdens

Most working mothers in our interview sample were able to work from home during the spring, as were many of their husbands. Most said their husbands were fairly involved in childcare and housework before the pandemic. Yet when schools closed, and parents were trying to do both, as well as manage children’s remote school, mothers found themselves handling more of these tasks. This seemed to happen for two reasons. First, due to the pandemic emergency, couples often prioritized the household’s higher-paying job for fear of jeopardizing it due to poor performance. Thus, the man’s job was often prioritized because of broader structural inequalities such as gender segregation in the labor market and the gender wage gap. Relatedly, husbands’ jobs were also usually perceived as more demanding in the sense of needing to work for longer periods of time without interruption. Second, prior to the pandemic, some mothers were working less than their husbands, often 25-30 hours per week. This was often because mothers wanted to spend more time with their children and also because of the high cost of childcare in the area. The following two examples illustrate these themes.

Mia is a full-time working mother with two young children. She and her husband were both trying to work from home and deal with the kids’ school, but she found herself doing the majority of the school and childcare tasks. As she told us:

“Thursdays in the afternoon are like, I had to leave the house because they've come in the room when I'm doing the presenting, and I'm running the show. But if I'm on conference calls, I can be kind of with the kids and on the call answering questions. I don't have to be engaged as much. So, it always depends on who has to be on a call. If [husband] has to be in a call, he's very dedicated to being in our computer room. Nobody goes and sees him. We avoid that area.”

Thus, Mia’s husband benefits from working at home without interruptions, while she must leave the house for that to happen. In addition, she is often doing childcare while she is working, while her husband is less likely to be doing both simultaneously.

Mia’s husband earned more, and his job was prioritized for needing to be done without interruptions or simply requiring more work time during the day. As Mia commented, criticizing the inequity she saw in her own household:

“He’s [husband] an engineer. He gets paid way more money being here than I do. If I were to live in Washington, D.C. for my job...it would definitely mean making a lot more money there. But I wanted to live in Colorado near family, and I wanted a better work-life balance...I deserve the same respect that you get, not just because you got a master's and your job pays you more. You shouldn't treat me less or think that I should be doing more in the house because I get paid less. So that's been a conversation a few times.”

Cara has one young child and works 25 hours per week while her husband works full-time. She, too, found herself managing her daughter’s remote school and worried about the pandemic’s impact on her career. She said of her husband: “I feel like he has longer stretches [to work] because he's definitely on the phone more than me and has meetings going. And I try to keep her out of the room. She will come in here though and disrupt some, but I try to minimize that and I take her on hikes and things to get her out of the house, whereas I don't feel like he does that as much.”

For Cara, working fewer hours than her husband translated into having to take over remote school during the pandemic. While she was also trying to work from home, her husband’s work seemed to take priority. Importantly, in both Mia's and Cara’s marriages, there were already tensions over the division of labor before the pandemic, meaning that the pandemic did not necessarily change the division of labor in their household, but rather magnified the unequal burden that already existed.

The 10 fathers in the study also expressed anxiety and stress over the increased burdens of childcare. But different from the women, several of the eight heterosexual men we interviewed worked jobs that they described as “more than full-time,” and five had wives who worked part-time or did not work for pay. In comparison, three of the 22 mothers reported that their husbands were unemployed at the time of the interviews, but otherwise they nearly all had husbands who worked full time. Of the fathers we interviewed, three said they had reduced their working hours during the pandemic, mainly due to furloughs or employers requiring reduction of paid hours. However, eight of the mothers we interviewed had reduced their paid work hours and several others said they were thinking about doing so, primarily in order to manage childcare. While we interviewed one heterosexual father who had recently transitioned to being a stay-at-home father, at least half the fathers interviewed described a pre-pandemic division of labor in which their wives handled the majority of child and household tasks. Thus, for some of the men we interviewed, not all that much changed during the pandemic except the addition to their wives’ tasks of managing remote schooling. It’s important to recognize that some interviewees described themselves and/or their spouses as being satisfied with a division of labor in which women took on more of the childcare. But certainly, the pattern of how household tasks were divided before the pandemic was important for how things played out during the pandemic.

Equitable Households

For a minority of working mothers, the household division of labor seemed more equitable, in the sense that they reported greater satisfaction with how childcare, housework, and school-related tasks were being shared or divided or, in a few cases, performed primarily by husbands or partners. These households tended to share one or more of several characteristics: (1) the working mothers were more likely to be breadwinners or have jobs that they and their partners considered more demanding; (2) husbands were unemployed; (3) children were older and more self-sufficient; (4) husbands’ workplaces were sympathetic to childcare needs; and in some cases, (5) there was an existing commitment to gender equity in the household. Nevertheless, many of the working mothers who felt that their division of labor was fairly equitable said that they still did more of the emotional labor and school-related tasks, both before and during the pandemic. The following examples illustrate some of these themes.

Nicole has three young children and works full-time. She frequently traveled before the pandemic, and during the pandemic, was working at home about 50 hours a week. Her husband worked full-time as well, but she described his job as less demanding. Prior to the pandemic, they had an au pair, which meant that they did much less childcare during the week, but they had also developed a division of labor that felt equitable to her in which she did most of the cooking while he did the cleaning. She told us, “I have the more intense career of the two of us, and I work longer hours, and I'm the primary breadwinner. And so, just through the years, we've had to have numerous conversations of ‘Okay, you have to do more.’ And he's had to take on more and more as I've gotten busier… over the past 10 years with my career. And he's very supportive of that.”

During the spring, they did not have childcare, and she said that her husband’s job was not as busy, so he managed the children while working from home and she worked full-time from home. She commented: “He’s actually enjoyed it. He's really amazing with the kids. And he really has a high capacity with them, and he's actually really enjoyed being able to be home and spend the extra time with them. So, I think it's just worked out well, because if the roles were reversed, I would have been miserable. I don't do well watching all three of them by myself.”

Similarly, other working mothers said their husbands’ jobs were more flexible, and tacitly allowed them to take time for childcare while still being paid the same. For example, Andrea and her husband both work full-time and have two young children. She is a private practice therapist, so she has some time flexibility due to her work being client-based. Before the pandemic, she described their household as being fairly equitable, with continuing conversations about the issue. During the pandemic, they both struggled to get work done (from the office and home) while managing childcare and remote schooling, and they tried to manage by splitting shifts during the day. But as time went on, her husband, who works for a major social media company, was allowed by his company to work part-time for the same pay in order to be able to do childcare during the day. She described their days during the pandemic:

“Monday and Tuesday, my husband went into work at 8:00 and worked till noon, and then he would come home, and we would have lunch together. Then I would go to the office from 1:00 ‘til 5:00 or 6:00, depending on how long my clients went. So that was the schedule on Monday and Tuesday, then on Wednesday and Thursday, it switched. So, I saw clients and did work in the morning and he did work in the afternoon into the evening. Then Fridays I took off altogether and then he worked in the mornings and then we just had additional family time.”

Although previous research has shown that husbands’ unemployment does not tend to result in them taking on more childcare and housework (Rao, 202021), in several cases in our study, perhaps because the situation was seen as a temporary emergency, unemployed husbands took on the majority of childcare and remote schooling.

Finally, some working mothers described their households as having a commitment to equity, but such a commitment was also very much enhanced by jobs that allow flexibility, especially during the pandemic. Lisa and her husband have two children. Both work in academia and have relatively flexible hours:

“I think that we've always had that commitment to the idea of a shared parenting, co-parenting, equal and equitable parenting. And that we both have work that we want to accomplish in the world, and close relationships we want to have with our children...I think that has shifted over time. I think when we had our first child, I was still in graduate school and not working full-time. And so, in our first initial years of parenting together, I did more of the parenting. And I think sometimes when the babies are little, you just do more. But I think as the kids have gotten older and are doing other things, it has become more equitable.”

Similar to many other households, Lisa and her husband usually endeavored to split the day into shifts of work and childcare, and because of the nature of their jobs, she felt that they were relatively successful in splitting these equitably.

Similarly, several of the parents from LGBTQ families said that an equitable division of labor in the household was important to them and that it was a continuing conversation in the household since before the pandemic. Teresa and her wife have one young daughter and were both able to work full-time from home. Teresa said that she and her wife were very strategic about creating a schedule to work from home and care for their young daughter:

“We made a schedule every day, and it's got three columns, like lists all the hours out, and it has three columns all the way across, the column for me, the column for my wife, the column for my daughter, and we block out when we have meetings or when we have work, and we need time for work, that's not meetings...Then we indicate who's doing what, when, and who's on point with our child.”

What also made this possible, according to Teresa, was that she and her wife had family-friendly workplaces and sympathetic supervisors.

An additional crucial factor that relieved the burden of some working parents during the pandemic was childcare assistance, especially from grandparents, but also from paid childcare arrangements such as live-in au pairs. Our data suggest that this contributed to micro-inequalities between households in similar demographics, in which some parents had access to help with childcare while others continued to struggle.

Survey Data

Of the 299 respondents, 222 identified as female, 20 as male, and 57 as other (including non-binary, transgender, or other gender identities). This heavily female response rate likely reflects much greater concern about gender issues during the pandemic on the part of women. The comments on the open-ended questions closely mirror the interview responses. For example, in response to a question of why the burden of children’s education in your household has fallen more heavily on one person, typical answers emphasized mothers’ greater flexibility or ability to work less. As one woman wrote: “The pandemic has coincided with my husband taking a master’s course in his industry, now online, so his schedule is much busier than before. He is also exhausted, which makes persuading him to help in the evenings difficult. And the kids still want their mother more.” Similarly, in response to a question asking how respondents feel about the effects of the pandemic on their household, answers talked about stress, anxiety, marital conflict, isolation, boredom, and career uncertainties. One respondent wrote, “I work from home but am working much harder for similar results. Husband’s role hasn’t changed. FRUSTRATING as a mom and as a working mother” (emphasis is respondent’s).

Discussion of Preliminary Findings

In these interviews, husbands’ job flexibility, wives’ breadwinner status, and prior commitments to gender equity mattered most for the division of labor during the early days of the pandemic in spring 2020. Similar to other studies, we found a pattern of mothers doing more of the childcare and remote schooling and, in most cases, feeling heavily burdened by this because they were also trying to work for pay. While the interviews did not find many women were planning to drop out of the work force (perhaps because June was still a relatively early stage of the pandemic), we did find many women who were formally or informally reducing their working hours. We also found a significant minority (about 25%) of households that seemed to have a more equitable division of labor, in which women did not feel significantly more burdened compared to their spouses.

Conclusions

Research before the pandemic has shown that working mothers in the United States were already stressed and disadvantaged by lack of family-friendly workplace policies and increasingly expensive childcare. The pandemic took away families’ school and childcare, exposing the arrangements within the household that childcare had previously alleviated.

Our interview data shows that in the majority of heterosexual households during the pandemic, mothers reported doing the majority of the childcare and remote schooling. Yet in most of our interviewees’ households, the volume of unpaid labor has increased, but the gendered division of labor has not shifted greatly. That is, the pandemic has amplified the inequities that already existed, including mothers doing more childcare and domestic tasks. The scholarship on disasters and epidemics shows that they tend to magnify pre-existing inequalities, and this seems to be the case with the current pandemic as well, although such events occasionally provide impetus for major social changes.

The Boulder/Denver area has a reputation for being socially progressive. But as much research has shown (Gerson, 201122), without structural supports, commitments to equity cannot necessarily be carried out. Many working mothers in our study were aware of the dynamics in their households. Still, they felt unable to resolve these as they are often structural issues related to men earning higher wages and having less flexible jobs. As Cara commented: “It's not that he is not used to doing that type of work or he thinks that he is above that, or shouldn't be doing that, I truly think that he thinks that he is participating and making that effort. But like I said, it just feels like I'm the keeper of it. I don't believe that he is thinking that’s my role or the woman's role, but that's sort of how it plays out...He has good intentions.”

Limitations and Strengths

These analyses of gender and family life during the COVID-19 pandemic are drawn from in-depth interviews. Such interviews have the potential to answer questions about how work is divided within a household and get at deeper questions about why this situation has come to be and how experiences differ even between demographically similar households. Interviews can often pinpoint issues or themes that surveys may not be able to capture, and they also provide a way for interviewees to have a voice. As qualitative scholars, we recognize that our interviewees are voicing narratives about the gendered division of labor in their family, which may or may not accurately describe their lives. Nevertheless, the majority of working mothers in this study expressed dissatisfaction with the division of labor in their households. There were discernible differences between the narratives of working mothers who described dealing with the bulk of remote schooling and childcare and those who felt that the labor was shared more equitably with their partner. In these interviews, husbands' job flexibility, wives' breadwinner status, and prior commitments to gender equity mattered most for labor division during the early days of the pandemic.

However, the small interview sample and narrow socioeconomic demographic is a limitation of this study. While this sample is a valuable one because it provides a snapshot of how a relatively affluent and liberal demographic has been affected by the pandemic, it will also be critical to understand the pandemic’s consequences for groups such as single mothers, women of color, and essential/frontline workers, who are likely to face even more serious challenges during the pandemic. Thus, much more research remains to be done—in particular, understanding how the pandemic is affecting working parents and gender dynamics within families, with particular attention to the consequences for working mothers from diverse racial/ethnic and socioeconomic circumstances.

Future Research Directions

Future research on the gender and family dynamics of the pandemic should seek to include mothers from a variety of racial/ethnic and social class backgrounds as well as include a variety of family structures (married, cohabiting, single). Future research should also examine the extent to which working mothers are reducing hours or leaving jobs compared to working fathers and should consider following respondents longitudinally to better understand the long-term impacts of the pandemic for women’s work and careers.

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Suggested Citation: Rinaldo, R. & Whalen, I. (2020). Gender, Working Parents, and the COVID-19 Pandemic in the United States. Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Grant Report Series, 315. Boulder, CO: Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. Available at: https://hazards.colorado.edu/quick-response-report/gender-working-parents-and-the-covid-19-pandemic-in-the-us

Rinaldo, R. & Whalen, I. (2020). Gender, Working Parents, and the COVID-19 Pandemic in the United States. Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Grant Report Series, 315. Boulder, CO: Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. Available at: https://hazards.colorado.edu/quick-response-report/gender-working-parents-and-the-covid-19-pandemic-in-the-us