Hidden Costs of the Pandemic on Gender Equality: Has COVID-19 Taught Working Mothers to Prioritize Their Family (Again)?

Two years into the pandemic, the initial shifts towards more gender-equal task divisions have bounced back. If work-family guilt leads mothers and essential workers to reconsider their investment in paid work, years of improvement in gender equality could be undone. Banner Image: iStock
Hidden Costs of the Pandemic on Gender Equality: Has COVID-19 Taught Working Mothers to Prioritize Their Family (Again)?

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At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, some experts warned that the lockdown measures would have detrimental effects on gender equality, particularly in relation to the division of household and care tasks.1 Other experts hoped that the pandemic might have a positive impact on gender equality outcomes, ultimately transforming gender norms and beliefs.2 Two years into the pandemic, the empirical evidence suggests that in several countries an increase in gender inequality in the division of household and care tasks didn’t materialise. The Netherlands is a clear example: gender inequality in the division of childcare did not worsen during the pandemic. But here are four reasons why we should still be concerned.

Initial shifts towards gender-equal task divisions bounced back

First, initial improvements in the gender-equal division of care appear to have been short-lived. In the Netherlands, the division of childcare became more gender equal during the early days of the pandemic. During the first lockdown (March 2020) and the weeks that followed, fathers took on more care tasks compared to before the pandemic.3 While mothers continued to take on the majority of childcare, with fathers’ increased role the gender gap in the division of care decreased. In fact, mothers with essential occupations initially reported a decrease in household and care tasks3; however, this improvement in gender equality disappeared in the months that followed.4 A return to pre-pandemic gendered division of care by November 2020 suggests a tenacity in gender roles that is not easily overcome.

Mothers and essential workers carry the psychological cost of work-family guilt

Second, despite many mothers and essential workers not taking on additional care tasks, they were feeling guilty about not being there for their family. Mothers and essential workers (nearly two-thirds of which are women)5 experienced more guilt regarding the combination of work and family than fathers or non-essential workers.6 This guilt was stronger during the first lockdown in March 2020 compared to the less stringent partial-lockdown in November–December 2020 in the Netherlands. This finding highlights the hidden psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, and shows how traditional gender roles (that prescribe women to prioritise caretaking over their job) still operate to straitjacket women. Even mothers and essential workers who did not take on extra care tasks at home during the pandemic are bearing a psychological burden, in terms of feeling guilty about working too much and not being there for their family.

Read more: A nudge for your partner to do more at home!, by Maxime Ladaique, Manager of Statistical Resources, OECD Social Policy Division

Work-family guilt drives compensatory behaviour among mothers and essential workers

Third, these same mothers and essential workers who experienced guilt about prioritising work over family during the pandemic were found to compensate for their guilt by reducing their leisure time and planning to reduce their work hours.6 We know from previous research that work-family guilt is a moral emotion that induces individuals to perceive themselves as bad people.7 Feeling guilty prompts individuals to change their behaviour in order to feel less guilty.8, 9 In the long run, this may result in more gender inequality because the guilt that working mothers in the Netherlands experienced could lead them to become less invested in their job and reduce their work hours to be able to prioritise their family.

Shifting back to traditional gendered task divisions is psychologically rewarding

Fourth, as the pandemic continued and the division of care returned to pre-pandemic gender-unequal levels, parents became more satisfied with this division than before.10 Women often perceive unequal divisions of housework and care as fair, which can impede efforts to shift towards more egalitarian roles for women and men.11

Women often perceive unequal divisions of housework and care as fair, which can impede efforts to shift towards more egalitarian roles for women and men.

Such perceptions rest on overwhelmingly traditional gender stereotypes (women as caregivers, men as breadwinners). Going against dominant stereotypes comes at a cost: when these stereotypes are violated (e.g. if women earn more than their male partner in heterosexual relationships) in countries upholding more gender traditional roles (e.g. the Netherlands), this can lead to lower relationship satisfaction.12 In egalitarian countries (e.g. Sweden, Finland), violations of gender stereotypes like these were not found to affect relationship satisfaction.12

Lessons Learnt

To reduce the negative long-term impact of women's experiences of gender equality we need to take action now. The lessons we learnt from the Netherlands are likely to apply to other OECD countries where the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted gender equality in work-care divisions.13

First, if work-family guilt experienced during the pandemic leads mothers and (mostly women) essential workers to reconsider their investment in paid work, years of improvement in gender equality may be undone. Clear steps need to be taken to retain these groups and prevent already existing gender inequalities from exacerbating further. One important way for organisations and policymakers to reduce work-family guilt in mothers—and in turn prevent their reduction of work hours—is by "de-gendering" work-family policies. For example, supporting fathers in their parental role (e.g. fully-paid paternity leave and encouraging fathers’ uptake) is crucial to make both parents equally responsible for childcare.14 Only when we treat working fathers and mothers equally, by providing them with the same opportunities to combine work and care, is it possible for men and women to also share the psychological burden of combining work and family.

Second, in the past year and a half 38% of healthcare professionals in the Netherlands have left the sector and 1 in 5 healthcare professionals consider leaving.15 This exodus of healthcare professionals (81% of which are women) already signals the consequences of the pandemic's psychological costs. Intense work pressure, poor work-life balance and low salaries are cited as key reasons for leaving. While traditional task divisions may return to "normal", we see that beneath the surface the pandemic is chipping away at the psychological resilience of (women) essential workers, their ability to combine work and family and their motivation to continue doing their essential job. In order to retain these workers in essential sectors, we need to organise their work better, provide them with more organisational support and also pay them better.

Find out more about Utrecht University’s research collaborations on Gender, Diversity and COVID-19.

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