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Moms working from home carried heavier child care burden than dads in 1st year of pandemic: study

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During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, mothers working from home spent an average of two hours more each day than fathers did supervising their children while they worked, according to a new U.S. study.

The peer-reviewed study by researchers at Cornell University, Yale University and Copenhagen Business School looked at how parenting and work arrangements shaped parents' time use from May to December 2020.

It used national data from the 2017 to 2020 American Time Use Survey, which recorded the nature and context of daily activities for a representative sample of Americans, to compare time use patterns before and during the pandemic for parents working from home and working on-site.

It also took into account data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that, during the first year of the pandemic, as many as half of employed American women and 42 per cent of all employed adults were working from home.

"What our paper shows is that everybody was doing more remote work that allowed flexibility for parents to multitask," co-author Kelly Musick told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview on Wednesday. Musick is a professor of public policy and sociology at Cornell, and senior associate dean of research at the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.

"The differential between mothers and fathers in supervisory care suggests that, at the end of the day, mothers did shoulder more of the responsibility," she added.

Musick and her co-authors looked at four measures of child care:

  • direct child care, in which a task like feeding, bathing or dressing a child is the parent's primary activity;
  • parents and children being in the same room while parents multitasked;
  • parents and children being in the same room while parents worked; and
  • parents supervising children while they worked, whether or not they were in the same room together.

They found that while the amount of time parents working from home spent in direct child care stayed about the same, mothers working from home were spending an additional 88 minutes per day in the same room as their kids compared to before the pandemic, and dads were spending an additional 72 minutes. Of those 88 and 72 minutes, just under an hour was spent while the parents were working.

The study also found mothers disproportionately increased their time playing with children during the pandemic, while dads took on more household chores.

The team didn't find any change in the amount of time parents working on-site – not from home – spent in child care while working, though that observation did raise the question of who cared for children in those families while schools were closed.

When it came to being the adult in charge of children in the house, whether or not they were in the same room, that's where Musick said time with kids "hugely expanded" during the pandemic for parents working from home.

"It really increased among mothers and fathers, but much more among mothers and only among parents who were working remotely," she said.

The research found mothers working remotely spent four-and-a-half hours per day indirectly supervising children, while fathers spent two-and-a-half hours in charge of kids. As a result, Musick said, mothers were more likely to change their work schedules and use the flexibility afforded by working from home to accommodate child care. They also spent more time multitasking, which Musick said previous studies have shown can raise stress levels and negatively impact mental and emotional well-being.

"It says those work environments were probably pretty stressful because, for women during half their workday, they were also supervising kids," she said, adding that working women prioritizing their families' needs during the pandemic were more likely to experience lost or lower wages and less upward career mobility.

In fact, a 2021 report by Oxfam International found that, during the first year of the pandemic, women globally lost 64 million jobs and at least $800 billion in income due to COVID-19. The disproportionate effect of job loss and burnout on women was so pronounced in 2020, it became known as the "shecession," a term variously credited to economist Armine Yalnizyan and C. Nicole Mason, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

With remote work becoming a more permanent, or at least common, arrangement for the workforce, Musick hopes her team's findings will help shape equitable employment policies that account for the domestic pressures women continue to face.

"In thinking about how to institutionalize remote work, how to provide that greater flexibility for workers who have competing demands, it's essential that we think about it in the context of the world we live in," she said, "a context where expectations are typically stronger for women to pick up those loose ends at home." 

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