Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/kudou

As the school year approaches and the questions of whether schools will reopen and under what conditions become urgent, another issue has come back into the spotlight: What toll will COVID-19 take on working parents, and will it be especially devastating for women’s careers? Is the pandemic, as some feminists have argued, “gendered” in a way that underscores the sexist and patriarchal nature of our society? Or is reality far more complicated?

In the last few days, several major newspapers and websites have run articles sounding the alarm. “Coronavirus child-care crisis will set women back a generation,” warns a headline in The Washington Post. According to CNN business, “The pandemic is threatening to erase women’s progress.”

In a column in the online publication GEN, feminist commentator Jessica Valenti argues that all this commentary is failing to place the blame where it belongs: on men. Or, specifically, dads. As Valenti puts it, “COVID-19 may be making it harder for parents to balance their home and work lives; but it’s dads who are making it harder for moms.” The solution? She proposes “old-fashioned shaming”: less focus on mothers struggling to balance work and childcare, and more on “men’s refusal to do an equal share of domestic work.”

But before we start bashing men, let’s look at the data. Between March and June, labor force participation dropped 2.1 percentage points for women, 1.9 for men — a miniscule difference. In a large survey by Northeastern University researchers in May and June, 25% of the women who had lost a job said it was due to child care problems; so did nearly 13% of the men. The disparity is obvious — but about a third of those who have lost work because of parenting demands are dads, a smaller gender gap than one might expect.

The gap was even smaller for those who reported reduced work hours: 18% of women and 16% of men said the reduction was due to childcare.

This doesn’t mean everything is equal. A few years ago, a Pew Research Center poll found that in families where both parents are employed full time, mothers spent roughly 50% more time on household and child care-related activities than fathers; about half of moms and only 10% of dads said they were more involved in managing children’s activities and taking care of sick children, while the rest said those responsibilities were split equally.

But the unequal division is not always forced on beleaguered moms by selfish dads. Research points to the phenomenon of “maternal gatekeeping,” in which mothers who see parenting as their “turf” more or less subtly shut the dads out, or disparage their competence. Many couples make the mutual decision that the mother will be the primary caregiver and the father the primary breadwinner. We can debate whether these preferences are due to biology or culture, but they are real. 

Indeed, that’s clear from a Wall Street Journal article Valenti cites as evidence of the problem. One woman curtailed her career even though her husband offered to split the child care; instead, she “urged him to focus on work” — partly because of his higher earnings but also, as she put it, because of “the mom thing.”

As recent surveys show, parents’ lives today are far less circumscribed by stereotypical norms of “the mom thing” vs. “the dad thing” than they were 30 or 40 years ago. That’s a good thing, and we can push for more progress. But that means asking both women and men to rethink their attitudes. And it certainly can’t be done through shaming.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.


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