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Has COVID-19 actually done us a favour?

Look, please don't get mad. This sounds like a bold statement – but hear us out. One thing COVID–19 has certainly done is highlight the heavy workload of unpaid domestic labour that's predominantly undertaken by women. To be specific; for every hour Australian men are cooking, cleaning or childminding, Australian women are doing one hour and 48 minutes. That's pretty much double.

At the start of the WFH evolution this year, thanks to the COVID–19 situation, there was speculation that housework would be more equally divided amongst couples. However, the latest studies suggest that around two thirds of this labor is still being undertaken by women – even though we've seen many hard working mothers taking on extra work load or special projects to deliver COVID related responses within their organisations.

So while there was a flicker of hope, unfortunately for many Australian women, not much has yet shifted in reducing the burden they experience – commonly known as ‘time crunch’.

Why is this labour still falling on women? Well, there are a number of reasons. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency of Australia; overall, women have experienced a 2.9% reduction in work hours, whilst men have experienced just 1.9%. Between mid March and mid June, payroll jobs held by women decreased by 6.5% with total wages for women decreasing by 3.4%.

More women hold (usually flexible) casual jobs than men and thus a larger number are not eligible for Jobkeeper payments – resulting in further loss of financial independence and support networks. This means that for many families, the family dynamics are actually reverting back to the days of a single income within the household.

From a survey of around 1000 Australian employees, 31% reported that they benefited from the flexibility of working from home and were or would expect to attend their workplace less often in future, But will that really make any difference to sharing domestic duties? So far it doesn't look like it.

In Australia, women spend almost 65% of their total average working hours each week on unpaid work compared to 36.1% for men. For women, that totals almost 37 hours, or around 148 hours every month. Those are some darn long hours and hard work that are often totally disregarded.

WGEA also points out that throughout the pandemic:

  • Frontline healthcare workers are predominantly women (in Australia, 75.4% of all healthcare workers are women, compared to 70% globally).
  • The overall increase in caring responsibilities during the COVID–19 crisis is likely to be shouldered by women (so, they will be receiving extra support, right?)
  • As more people work from home, are under–employed or unemployed, men may take on more care and domestic work, which would affect the gendered division of labour and social norms.

But in reality, that last one isn't really what we're seeing. Whilst academic data from Canda, the Netherlands, the USA and Germany all found that fathers have reported a more equal split of the household chores – their partners gave lesser estimates on the split equality. On this, some women have said that the standards of housework between partners just didn't align – for example, one partner might not prioritise cleaning the kitchen for a few days, but the other one needs the space to cook. Arguing about how tasks should be done is a whole other issue that can easily get out of hand in already stressful times.

So, it seems that the division of unpaid household labour might not be so simple. What solutions are out there?

Some families have found that hiring a cleaner to split the labour at home has been a straightforward option. Others have relied on nannies or babysitters; without whom, it's impossible for many parents to work from home. Many families have certainly found it difficult to no longer be able to rely on grandparents or family members to babysit whilst daycares have closed.

We don't have the solution. But what we can suggest is that we take a look at these telling stats and think about how we can better support the women in our communities. When both parents are working from home, for example; how can childcare duties be split? How can some of the burden be reallocated? Can a cleaner be afforded? The situation where the whole family is stuck home certainly does not guarantee easy times for everyone; but maybe this gives opportunity to consider better support for the balancing act undertaken by the women in our families.

Ultimately, each family situation will be highly individualised. This pandemic is long from over – and we strongly encourage everyone in our extended community to check up on each other and take a break when you need it. The statistics are clear – women are still fronting domestic activities. However, with further recognition, we hope to see a little more equality in future.

For those who need tailored in home childcare and housekeeping assistance; mtime offers personalised services within Melbourne (and soon to be Sydney).

services.mtime.com.au

by Stephanie Kinstler - 2020 Jul 20