As difficult as it may be to believe, we are only six short weeks away from the anniversary of the first Ontario lockdown back in March 2020. At the time, staying indoors for an extended period of time was a difficult adjustment for many people — though it did have some benefits, such as the explosion of interest in baking.

Now, a new study from sociologists at UTM and Brigham Young University in the United States proposes that another benefit of the lockdowns might have been a more equal division of labour for couples with children. 

The study examined the shift in division of housework between different-sex Canadian couples during the first wave of the pandemic. The researchers asked 1,234 parents with at least one child whether the distribution of child care and domestic tasks within the home, like laundry and grocery shopping, changed during stay-at-home orders.

The results paint a complicated picture of gendered labour. While fathers did become more involved in household affairs, the greatest increases came within tasks already associated with being a father. Moreover, they were more likely to take on responsibilities if they worked from home throughout the first wave, were part of a dual-earner household, or were part of a woman single-earner household.

Despite these caveats, the researchers believe their results illustrate a way to improve gender equity in household labour. When fathers were more regularly exposed to the needs of the home and their children, they were more likely to become involved in parental and household responsibilities — a hypothesized psychological process the researchers call “needs exposure.” If fathers could spend more time at home in the future, they might voluntarily take on more responsibilities. 

Thus, they argued that structural changes that allow fathers to spend more time at home may be successful in reducing gendered labour.

What fathers did and didn’t do

Despite the increasing presence of women in the labour force, parenting and domestic chores — activities like laundry, shopping, cleaning, and doing the dishes — are still largely done by women. According to research published by Statistics Canada in 2015, women spend an average 6.3 more hours per week on household tasks than men. 

This disparity still holds when women enter the labour force. The same report also showed that women who are employed full time spend about three and a half more hours per week doing domestic chores than men who were also employed full time.

But by querying parents with children during the first wave of the pandemic, the researchers found that fathers did become more involved while at home.

Each participant was asked a series of questions about whether they or their partner did more of a given task before and after the start of the pandemic. Participants were also asked whether they believed fathers were becoming more involved in these tasks as a way to differentiate between how mothers and fathers perceived changing behaviour. 

Notably, fathers became slightly more involved with domestic tasks, including meal preparation, post-meal clean up and house cleaning. For example, 45.8 per cent of couples said that fathers did half or more of all the meal preparation pre-pandemic, but 50 per cent of couples said that fathers were taking their fair share after the pandemic started. The most significant increase was for grocery shopping, with 6.8 per cent more couples saying fathers were doing at least half of the work.

Fathers also became more involved in child care, including monitoring, talking to, and physically caring for children. 

A complicated picture

There were several other results from this study that complicate this picture of a more gender-equal home. Firstly, while fathers were more involved while at home, they appeared to stick to tasks that were traditionally associated with being a father in the first place, such as enforcing rules for children. 

This preserves an element of gender in the household duties being performed. It is also consistent with UK studies about the pandemic’s effects, which suggested that gender is a powerful determinant in the kind of work parents do more of while at home.

Furthermore, when work status was included, the researchers found that fathers were more likely to be involved when they worked from home or if their partners worked. For example, men single-earners were 35.5 to 38.2 per cent less likely to become more involved in housework than men whose partners also worked, depending on the type of chore. 

The researchers proposed that this pattern could be explained by the needs exposure hypothesis. A more equal division of labour would then require structural changes that allow fathers to spend more time at home. These changes could include parental leave and more flexible work-from-home arrangements.

Speaking to UTM News, co-author of the study and UTM sociology professor Melissa Milke noted that these changes should also include incentives for women to stay in the workforce.

“We need to address the structural inequalities that relegate more women than men to low-status, low-paying jobs,” she said. “We also need policies that allow fathers to be more active participants in their families.”