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The Elusive Transformation: Household Responsibilities and COVID-19

Feminist Perspectives
Ravinder Kaur, Sonalde Desai

Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, India & University of Maryland, USA

01 March 2021

Several studies on the sharing of tasks in the household during the COVID-19 pandemic have reiterated one uncomfortable truth: across the world, women took on more of the domestic burden – whether of housework, child or eldercare. In this piece, we explore the impact of COVID-19 on the gendered division of household labour among educated, middle-class families in some South Asian countries. Our findings are based on a survey we designed to capture how a variety of household tasks and responsibilities were being distributed between heterosexual couples working from home, or if the male breadwinner was working from home during the pandemic.

The survey was carried out for academic purposes and was advertised on social media through Twitter and a variety of personal email networks. Our respondents consisted of 339 men and 287 women from South Asian countries, mainly India, while a few others were Indians, Pakistanis or Bangladeshis resident in the USA or Canada. All respondents were living in metropolitan or large cities; they were highly educated, with 70% males and 77% females reporting a master’s degree or above and most were employed in academia or as high-level professionals or managers.

Research in Western countries has shown that women’s relative income, education and labour force participation may be associated with greater involvement of their partners in housework1 although workplace barriers may pose an impediment to equitable distribution of unpaid work. Hence, the expectation was that widespread exposure to ideologies of gender equality would have influenced highly educated, upper-middle-class working couples in our survey towards negotiating an equal burden of household tasks during the lockdown, particularly when workplace barriers were relaxed.2 However, our findings reveal that males in the survey while expressing a pro-family orientation (importance of family life and togetherness), were happy to reap the benefits of gendered constructions of household and care work. That education or paid work do not necessarily translate into gender-equality gains for women is well known.3 Additionally, our findings also confirm Daminger’s argument that egalitarian couples combine progressive ideals with traditional practices by de-gendering the allocation process, or offering rationales around constraint and choice that help to avoid spousal conflict. She argues that socialization and choices over the life-course account for a comfort level with traditional gender roles patterns.4 Remarking on the significance of the socialization process one of our respondents remarked “Men can certainly do more (household tasks) than we think. It’s just that they are not trained to do so right from the beginning.”

Fifty-five per cent of the households in our sample were left without any domestic help, providing us with a near-perfect natural experiment.5 The overall amount of work in the household increased due to all members being present at home throughout the day. This meant that more meals had to be cooked, there was more dishwashing and cleaning to be done and professional work had to be finished. For example, before the lockdown, 48% of women had help with cooking compared to only 12% during the lockdown. As a result, the percentage of women who reported doing any cooking increased from 47% to 77%, for men however, the increase was only 12 percentage points.

Households with small or school-going children had the additional tasks of childcare and home-schooling, while those with elderly parents had to allocate time to provide them with the required care. A female respondent in a household with small children said “Responsibilities have increased for both of us. Many of the tasks mentioned above (in the survey) were earlier not done by either of us.”6

Significantly, there was a mismatch in men’s and women’s perceptions of whether they did more or less domestic/care work during the lockdown and their perceptions of each other’s contribution. Seventy-one per cent of males thought they did more household chores (cooking, cleaning, dusting, laundry etc.) whilst nearly 87% of women thought so (difference statistically significant at p <= 0.05). However, there was a stark difference in perception when spouses were asked who shouldered more of the burden; 52% of men felt their spouses did more chores while only 5% of women thought the same of their spouses! That women did do more of the chores is also reflected in the following numbers – 7% men and 45% women said they shouldered a bigger burden. Interestingly, a substantial percentage of men (38%) and women (44%) thought the burden was equally shared.

Both admitted that it was women who largely undertook the burden of childcare (which included home-schooling). A mere 4.7% of men admitted that they contributed more to childcare in contrast with 52% of women. This is consistent with the response of spouses to the question ‘who took charge of childcare more’; around 48% of men said their spouses did so, while only around 10% of the women said their spouse shouldered more of the childcare chores.

Managing time during the lockdown was difficult as the demarcation between work and home became blurred. Covid-related illnesses and bereavements resulted in increased psychological stress. We asked who took greater charge of “status-production work”7 such as making phone calls to condole or enquire after the well-being of relatives and friends, arranging social activities for children or making care arrangements for elderly parents etc. While both men and women shouldered such social responsibilities, women carried a greater proportion of this burden.

Tension and conflict over sharing of household responsibilities if both spouses are in paid work are routine. We asked whether conflict in the household had increased/decreased/stayed the same due to the increase in household work and lack of help. While 6% of men felt that conflict increased with lockdown, three times as many women (18%) felt that had it had increased. Some of this conflict is reflected in responses like: “I have replaced the household help!” (40-year-old male); a woman said, “Men have started dictating more on how to do chores!” Some women felt men were doing chores out of a “feeling of guilt” and that they were unlikely to contribute once things returned to normal.

While many couples realized the value of domestic help and families thought they had grown closer due to the extended time spent together, the gender divide in household work could be summed up in one young woman’s statement: “I realized the gender gaps which exist in the division of labour in my own family more conspicuously in this lockdown period. Male members did try to contribute and offer some kind of help, but it was as if they were simply helping us with our work rather than doing family or household work.” Another female respondent, working full-time from home alongside her husband, observed that the COVID-19 lockdown made the gender inequality in household work more glaring, with men helping out “only if they were in the mood.” A male respondent said “I volunteered to take up some household work to relieve the burden of my wife. As the lockdown is still continuing, this has given me immense satisfaction of being able to help my wife in hard times.”

Such patronising attitudes confirm that when household work is naturalized as female work, and as long as it remains identified as such, it is likely to be poorly valued and women will continue to bear the “double burden.” It also provides an interesting corollary to the observation in time use literature from the United States; when women join the labour force, men’s participation in domestic work increases slightly but mechanization and outsourcing of housework take up most of the slack due to women’s absence.8 Our results show that in the absence of paid help, entrenched gender division of labour kicks in with women taking up a larger share of household work that was previously done by paid help.

With relatively cheap domestic labour being available in plenty, the household division of labour is likely to revert to pre-Covid arrangements, despite some families claiming that they would prefer to stick to the new norm where husbands shared at least some of the domestic chores. While the ease of outsourcing domestic labour papers over domestic gender equalities, it makes transparent the broader structures of gender inequality where less privileged women undertake domestic work for other women privileged enough to be in highly-paid work, echoing much of the literature on global care chains.

One silver lining from this short hiatus during which men and adult children helped out with household labour and care work could be a possible effect on norms of older generations who saw their sons sharing domestic chores with wives. Initial consternation at this violation of gender norms (stigma being associated with men, and especially husbands, doing domestic chores) soon turned into a wish that a similar pattern of sharing would be maintained over the weekends when working couples were at home!

  1. Bianchi Suzanne M, Milkie Melissa A, Sayer Liana C, Robinson John P. 2000. Is Anyone Doing the Housework? Trends in the Gender Division of Household Labor. Social Forces 79:191–228.
  2. Countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have had long and robust women’s movements that have raised various issues of gender equality. English language newspapers in these countries frequently dwell upon these issues and educated men pay at least lip service to the ideal of gender equality. Women’s equal right to education has achieved general acceptance, even if lacking in practice, while women’s rights to their own bodies and freedom from oppressive practices are emphasized.
  3. Patel, Reena and Parmentier, Mary Jane. 2005. “The Persistence of Traditional Gender Roles in the Information Technology Sector: A Study of Female Engineers in India.” Information Technologies and International Development 2 (3): 29–46
  4. Daminger, A. 2020. De-gendered Processes, Gendered Outcomes: How Egalitarian Couples Make Sense of Non-egalitarian Household Practices. American Sociological Review Vol. 85(5): 806–829
  5. In South Asian countries, middle class households typically employ part-time or full-time (live-in) household help. The vast majority of part-time domestic workers are female migrants from poorer states who work for several households during the day (See Neetha, N. 2013. “Minimum Wages for Domestic Work: Mirroring Devalued Housework”. Economic and Political Weekly 48 (43): 77-84 and Neetha, N. 2009. Contours of Domestic Service: Characteristics, Work Relations and Regulation. The Indian Journal of Labour Economics 52 (3): 489-506. Live-in help is also generally female while a smaller proportion are males. Our data pertain to families who had neither part-time nor full-time household help during lockdown.
  6. Our survey enquired about a large variety of daily household chores and responsibilities such as cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry, making beds, sweeping, swabbing, shopping, sanitizing, storing groceries, garden chores, childcare, home-schooling, and care of elderly parents. In South Asian homes, people rarely do their “own thing” such as getting their own meal or tea; family members share all meals if they are at home bringing a different dynamic to the division of labour from that in Western countries.
  7. Papanek, Hanna. 1979. Family Status Production: The "Work" and "Non-Work" of Women. Signs 4 (4), The Labor of Women: Work and Family: 775-781.
  8. Bianchi Suzanne M, Milkie Melissa A, Sayer Liana C, Robinson John P. 2000. Is Anyone Doing the Housework? Trends in the Gender Division of Household Labor. Social Forces 79:191–228.

About the Authors

Sonalde Desai is a Professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Maryland, USA. She is a demographer whose work deals primarily with social inequalities in developing countries with a particular focus on gender and class inequalities. She has published articles in a wide range of sociological and demographic journals including American Sociological Review, Demography, Population and Development Review and Feminist Studies. She holds a joint appointment with National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), New Delhi, where she is a Senior Fellow and Director of National Data Innovation Centre. Sonalde has been instrumental in developing the Indian Human Development Survey which will soon be conducting its third round. Details are available at: Most recently, Sonalde has been elected as the President of the Population Association of America for 2021.

Ravinder Kaur is a Professor of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, India. Her main areas of research are gender, sex ratio imbalances, marriage, family, technology, and social change. She has published widely in Indian and international journals. Two of her recent publications are “Gendered parenting and returns from children in contemporary India: A study of IIT students and their parents” Current Sociology (Feb. 2021) and “The Gendered Biopolitics of Sex Selection in India (with Taanya Kapoor). Asian Bioethics Review (2021). She has co-edited two books - “Too Many Men, Too Few Women: Social Consequences of Gender Imbalance in India and China”. 2016. Orient Blackswan Ltd. and “Marrying in South Asia: ‘Shifting Concepts, Changing Practices in a Globalising World’” (with Rajni Palriwala). 2014. Orient Blackswan Ltd.

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Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that use gender as a category of analysis or explore…

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