First, the bad news: Over the short run, they predict, working moms will shoulder a higher burden than dads when it comes to providing childcare in the pandemic.
But there’s also good news: Millions of dads have suddenly been forced to stay home with their kids. This historic moment could forever shift dynamics in both firms and families, leading to greater gender equality down the road.
Why moms have it harder
The coronavirus recession will be different than any other downturn for many reasons. Among them: the way it impacts women and men in the labor force.
For working moms in any of these groups, serving as the primary childcare provider is more of a necessity than a choice now that work has dried up and schools are closed.
Among middle class and higher income couples — particularly those who have the ability to work from home — job losses may not be as severe, but tradeoffs within families will still be common. After all, someone has to watch the kids. In heterosexual couples, that responsibility is still likely to fall on women.
“In the majority of households, where the man is the higher earner, there is going to be a temptation to cater to his career — and it’s not impossible that it could have longer term effects,” said Francine Blau, an economics professor at Cornell University who has conducted numerous studies on the gender pay gap.
It’s not just money that makes the decision. Even in families where women are the higher breadwinner, research has shown moms are more likely than dads to opt out of the labor force to care for children.
All these dynamics are unfolding in households now in response to the dearth of childcare during the coronavirus pandemic. Which is why it’s not surprising Doepke and his colleagues hypothesize working moms are likely picking up the largest share of childcare and homeschooling in many homes.
It will take years for economists to collect all the data and analyze whether this was actually the case. But right now, they are also hopeful this moment could eventually lead to lasting change.
A moment like World War II
While many mothers are likely to pick up the largest share of childcare during the crisis, that won’t be true in all families. In some households, traditional gender roles will be reversed.
Overall, that will mean millions of dads will suddenly find themselves as the primary caregiver, many for the first time in their lives. Such a dramatic shift in gender roles hasn’t happened since World War II, when millions of married women entered the labor force for the first time to replace men in factories.
Likewise, Doepke and his colleagues think the coronavirus pandemic could increase men’s participation in household labor, including childcare, even after the pandemic is over. They cite studies documenting how paternity leave policies in Spain and Germany increased fathers’ involvement in childcare later on.
“During the current crisis, many millions of men are on a form of forced paternity leave for a much longer period, and a sizeable fraction will be the main providers of childcare during this time,” Doepke and his colleagues wrote. “Hence, even while women carry a higher burden during the crisis, it is still highly likely that we will observe a sizeable impact of this forced experiment on social norms, and ultimately on gender equality, in the near future.”
There’s another way, too, that the coronavirus pandemic could advance gender equality. Many businesses are adopting widespread work-from-home options for the first time. Now that they’ve invested in telecommuting technologies and acclimated to that experience, it’s unlikely they’ll go all the way back to the pre-pandemic way of working. Doepke and his colleagues predict some flexible work arrangements will remain in place.
“All these companies now have to make this work, with families being at home and having these other responsibilities,” Doepke said. “It might be a culture shock that has implications on equality.”
Ultimately, how all this will play out is hard to say, Goldin said. But economists will study the coronavirus recession — and its reverberations on gender equality — for years to come.
“On the gender front, we have made this into a ‘war,”http://rss.cnn.com/” Goldin wrote in an email. “WWII was fought in our factories first and then on land and sea. This war is being fought first in our hospitals, research labs, and the home front.”
“Let’s see if dads step up to the plate and do 50-50,” she added. “Could that ever happen? I hope so.”