Does working from home result in a more balanced division of labor in the household?


Katharina Mader, researcher at the Institute for Heterodox Economics.

Maria W.: Does working from home result in a more balanced division of labor in the household? Do people work more in general when working from home?

Answer by Katharina Mader, researcher at the Institute for Heterodox Economics:

Studies conducted in Germany last year – i.e. from before the crisis – have demonstrated 3 important findings: First, teleworking does not give either mothers or fathers any additional free time. Second, mothers working from home spend 1½ to 3 hours more per day caring for their kids than mothers with fixed working hours. At the same time, they spend around an hour longer on their paid work. Third, teleworking fathers spend less time looking after their children than their colleagues working outside the home. The option to work from home has no effect on time spent with their families. Another interesting finding about men: The more flexible their working time arrangements are, the more overtime they spend working for their paid job.

So we can see that teleworking does not (automatically) change gender roles and the distribution of unpaid household labor. Interestingly, it is because of these stereotypical gender roles that women are less likely to be offered teleworking opportunities, because employers are afraid they will spend more time taking care of children or attending to household chores rather than concentrating on their work. This is why, according to surveys conducted in Germany, women are much more likely than men to be concerned about suffering negative professional consequences if they work from home, regardless of their career level (Lott 2018; Lott 2020).

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, some economists have argued that the crisis will help equalize the sexes. Fathers, they reason, who are now forced to work from home will realize how much work and energy go into housework and childcare. Going forward, they will be more willing to take on a larger share of the unpaid work in the household. These economists predict that the pandemic will bring greater equality between the sexes.

In the time from April 20 to May 14, 2020, i.e. during the strictest lockdown period, we conducted an online survey to test this hypothesis and are currently analyzing the results.

What we can see so far is that the pandemic, in combination with the closures of school and childcare facilities and the unavailability of grandparents, threatens to shift the burden of childcare and other caregiving responsibilities to private households. For many parents, then, the lockdown resulted in stress, overwork, and the feeling that responsibilities were unfairly distributed. Many conflicts arose between partners about the lack of appreciation of childcare and housework as work versus teleworking as work. The main point of contention was generally how much a particular activity is worth and who is “allowed” to do how many hours of paid work each day.

As is common practice in official time use surveys, we asked people to report their use of time from the previous day or the last working day in 15-minute intervals. Many people struggled with the survey’s limitation to a 24-hour period, because the lockdown made secondary activities much more difficult, for example, when childcare and teleworking (had to) take place in the same room. The subjects’ frequent response that currently, days do not have 24 hours, but rather 36 to 42 hours, reflects this overload.

Looking at paid and unpaid work, women and men both worked between 11 and 15 hours per day during the initial restrictions. Single mothers clocked the most hours, coming in at just under 15 hours, including 9 hours of unpaid childcare and domestic work. Mothers in 2-parent households, however, came very close to these hours for the first time, working 14¼ hours – 9½ of which were unpaid. Fathers in 2-parent households, on the other hand, worked just under 13¾ hours, including just under 7 unpaid hours. These ratios are particularly evident in households with children under 15 years of age, where both parents were working from home during the lockdown. Many of the responses to the survey also show just how hard it is to reconcile telework and childcare: “I cannot put into words how impossible it is to combine childcare and working from home.”

Working from home and “being at home” confirm existing gender role stereotypes and structures rather than evening out imbalances, resulting in massive additional strain for women. For example, our results also show considerable differences in the use of time in 2-parent households where “he,” the family breadwinner, works full-time and “she,” the additional earner, works part-time. Women in these households work 13¼ hours, 7½ unpaid, while men work 13 hours, of which just under 5 are unpaid.

Equal distribution of household chores in childless couples

The situation looks quite different in childless households where both partners are working from home, here working hours are distributed much more equally. In these households, both worked at their paid jobs for just under 8 hours and also did about 3 hours’ worth of household chores. Based on these findings, our results confirm that traditional role models often become more firmly established as soon as children enter a household, and many couples remain entrenched in these roles even after the mother’s longer maternal leave. It is still often taken for granted that women are responsible for the majority of unpaid work.

What the study has made clear for the first time is the network of unpaid or underpaid work that becomes necessary to care for children and other relatives when schools, childcare facilities, and grandparents, but also 24-hour caregivers are no longer available. The current situation also makes it clear that if a society wants to increase gender equality, then the unpaid work performed in private households has to be distributed more fairly. Especially between heterosexual couples, the division of work will have to be renegotiated to give women and men equal footing on the labor market.

More about the study

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