Sharing housework in the pandemic: what changed and for how long?

In Episode 5 of Series 2 of our podcast, we talk to Alejandra Rodríguez Sánchez from the University of Berlin and Susan Harkness from the University of Bristol about research from the DIAL funded Equal Lives project on the gendered division of housework during lockdown and whether or not changes that happened were temporary or long-lasting.

Gender division of housework during the COVID-19 pandemic: Temporary shocks or durable change? 

is research published in Demographic Research by Alejandra Rodríguez-Sánchez, Anette Fasang and Susan Harkness.


Christine Garrington  0:00

Welcome to DIAL a podcast where we tune in to evidence on inequality over the life course. In this series, were discussing findings from DIALs Equal Lives Project, which looks at how inequality impacts the lives of young adults. Our guests in today’s episode, are Equal Lives Principal Investigator Susan Harkness, and Aleja Rodríguez Sánchez. They’ve been looking at the gender division of housework during the COVID-19 pandemic, to see whether any changes are temporary or longer lasting. I started by asking Susan to explain the backdrop to the research.

Susan Harkness  0:32 

So this research fits into a larger body of research looking at how inequalities evolve over the lifecourse. And so when COVID came along, we realised it revealed that there are really important changes going on and new inequalities and growing inequalities we needed to think about so a part of that we’re looking at what is happening within families, and in particular, how households divide their labour because that has implications for what happens in the labour market and what happens to broader inequalities.

Christine Garrington  1:01 

Aleja what exactly was it that you’re hoping to get a better handle on, a better understanding of in all of this?

Alejandra Rodríguez Sánchez  1:09

Yeah, we started with the idea that maybe the effects of the pandemic and the lockdown on the division of labour were going to affect some people more than others. We intended to look at what couples would do differently if they had children or didn’t have children. We also further wanted to look at whether the age of the child would make a difference in how the pandemic impacted the division of labour. But then we realised that there were a lot of things going on at the same time and it wasn’t going to be easy to sort of look at one moment in time and before and after. And so we wanted to give it a more dynamic look and see how the situation evolved over time as these further changes in the furlough scheme, childcare and school closures were put in place and then lifted. 

Christine Garrington  1:55 

Can you talk us through exactly what it was that you that you did?

Alejandra Rodríguez Sánchez  1:58 

We opted for a very, first, very descriptive type of study, looking at the share of housework done by women, and here we look at the percentage or the proportion or the share that it’s done by women of the total amount of number of hours spent on housework, cooking, cleaning, but does not include childcare in this case. So we want to know how that share of the work done by women changed. So we wanted to look at this quantity at different moments in the pandemic. We wanted to look at it first shock but then we also wanted to look at what happened after that first shock, whether those same things, the same effects would have stayed over time or were they, whether there would need some sort of change. And for that we use a technique called kernel density estimation, which helps us to see how the distribution of a variable in the population has shifted over time. So we wanted to first estimate pre-pandemic distribution and then we wanted to see how the distribution has shifted over time. Then secondly, we wanted to sort of further those descriptive analysis with a fixed effects type of regression, which basically we tried to compare couples to their own selves in the past to sort of get rid of some of the heterogeneity that it’s unobserved. 

Christine Garrington  3:13 

You got your information from an especially conducted COVID survey, what sorts of things were people asked in that that made it possible to look really closely at these questions?

 Alejandra Rodríguez Sánchez  3:23  

Yeah, the COVID survey – it’s really like a special very special or very unique study, in a way even for other in comparison to other UK studies that were done during the first year of COVID. The sample is basically a sub sample of this Understanding Society study, which is this much larger study that has followed UK households for more than 10 years. And there were lots of questions on how the COVID pandemic affected sort of the general welfare of households and individuals and there were questions about socio-economic conditions, I think, unemployment stuff, and there were also things about family dynamics. So it’s quite comprehensive. And I think there’s a lot more to see in there.

Christine Garrington  4:02 

How and why do surveys like this help us gain such important insights into what is going on in people’s lives and how that’s changing over time?

Susan Harkness  4:11 

Okay, so there’s two things that are really valuable about surveys like the UK household Longitudinal Survey, or Understanding Society, as we call it. First of all, it’s a survey that’s conducted at the household level so we can see what’s going on. Not just amongst individuals, but how, how relationships within the household pan out. And then the second thing that’s valuable about it of course, is the longitudinal aspect. So that really allows us to look at changes over time. And that allows us to understand much more about why we have inequalities and how they affect different people. So in the case of the COVID studies, we can see where change happened, where they relatively, families where things were relatively equal before became more unequal? Or which particular groups were most affected? So we can see these changes over time. And I suppose if we look at the COVID Understanding Society surveys, and what’s also really valuable about this survey is that whilst there have been a lot of other surveys which have given us a sort of snapshot of what’s happening at a particular point in time, with the COVID surveys with Understanding Society, we can see how these inequalities are emerging as we move through the pandemic so we can see who is being affected and how that is changing for them over time.

Christine Garrington  5:30 

Yeah, really important and Aleja so let’s get down into the nitty gritty then – when you, when you looked over time at how men and women were dividing housework or sharing housework at different times during the pandemic. What did you find?

Alejandra Rodríguez Sánchez  5:44 

Yeah, well, we found a remarkable first data set that is seen as a sort of shift in the distribution towards more equality between couples. So the original pre-pandemic distribution it’s quite was quite unequal and therefore sort of skewed looking like more women, we’re doing more. So visually, it really looks like a bump around like 65-70%, which means really, women do the majority of this housework. And so the first shock is that the shape of that bump to the left, so to say towards more equality, so it’s close to 50/50 but it’s not quite there yet. And then after, after that first shock with the data for further and further waves revealed was a gradual, but a clear return to previous levels, that we’re seeing pre-pandemic where women started to do again a higher percentage of the total housework over time. And this sort of return to normal was especially clear for couples with children, whereas couples without children, we saw that this higher equality achieve after their lockdown or during the lockdown was more sustained. And these results were also confirmed with the fixed effects regression that I mentioned. So we think that the results basically show us that there were different trends, depending on the lifecourse stage in which the family was.

Christine Garrington  7:07 

Yeah, so it looks to be fairly robust doesn’t it? And Susan, is that what you expected to see? Or were you surprised that having children made a difference to whether couples continue to share housework more equally, or revert to their pre-pandemic habits as it were in this, this area?

Susan Harkness  7:23 

Right, well of course, I mean, COVID has been an enormous shock, I think. Especially in the early months where we had people’s work was affected, and for those who had children schools were closed. And I think that shock meant that couples changed their behaviour, whether they had children or not. And of course, there was a lot of early optimism that, that those changes would mean a bit more gender equality. But what we’ve seen is I think that as people have adapted, we’ve seen the sort of patterns emerge in a way that’s quite similar to what happens for example, when children, children are born. And we have this specialisation, where women tend to revert back to taking on more of the roles involved in sort of looking after the house whereas men tend to specialise more in work. So sadly, and I think for those with children, I think we see these greater specialisation – so children are often a trigger for more specialisation within households with, with men doing more paid work and women doing more of the housework. And I think to some extent, what we’re finding reflects these, these old patterns that we’ve seen previously in the data before COVID. So perhaps early optimism was, was not as well placed as it might have been.

Christine Garrington  8:31 

Hmmm I will ask you a bit more about the implications of that in a moment, but Aleja what would you say that we’ve learned from this piece of research that you’ve done and I wonder if you have plans to look further at this particular area, this particular aspect of people’s lives?

Alejandra Rodríguez Sánchez  8:45 

I think one key message besides what Susan has already said is that before and after comparisons, sort of they can be informative, but they’re only showing us like a snapshot of what actually happened. And longitudinal data is really key because for us, we gained a lot of information by actually looking at how things evolved over time, which gives a different take on this, on how, when we claimed, those early claims on how the pandemic would change at all for the better or worse we are definitely looking at working already further on the COVID-19 effects. But this time, we’re going to, we’re shifting the perspective from the couple to the children in particular to teenagers. Were interested in understanding what factors may explain some preliminary findings on what was found as the serious deterioration of mental health among teenagers, especially teenage girls. We want to see what factors about their families but particularly about mothers who were also having, were having a hard time during the pandemic may explain what happened to teenagers. And so we’re working with Susan and Annette on this.

Christine Garrington  9:52 

Yeah, no really interesting, more really important work to come by the sounds of things. So Susan, just to wrap up really a lot has been said about how COVID-19 has negatively affected the lives of women more than men. Fears have been expressed around the reversal of any sort of pre-pandemic trends towards a greater gender equality. Would you say that this piece of research and, and other work that you’re doing tells us anything about that, do you think?

Susan Harkness  10:17 

Well, I think certainly other studies have, have shown that women’s mental health has been particularly adversely affected by the pandemic and particularly by the lockdown measures, so we know that some of the responses to the COVID crisis have really negatively affected women more than they have affected men. Weve also, I think seeing some trends in the labour market where particularly mother’s employment is perhaps recovering a bit more slowly than that, that of men to pre-pandemic levels of employment and hours of work. So I think there are some indications that there are implications for gender equality, and that those are not necessarily going to be reversed in the short term. I think the longer-term consequences are much harder to tell of course. You know, what effect this, these, these closures has on women and their careers is, it’s something that we don’t yet know, but it’s, it’s not hard to imagine reasons that parents may feel that they’re going to fall, fall behind in the labour market because of the extra roles they’ve had to take on over this crisis. And I suppose the question remains about whether in the longer term, they’ll be able to catch up with where they may have been otherwise.

Christine Garrington  11:31 

Gender Division of Housework Furing the COVID-19 Pandemic: Temporary Shocks or Durable Change is research by Alejandro Rodriguez Sanchez, Annette Fasang and Susan Harkness and is published in Demographic Research. You can find out more about the Equal Lives project at Thanks for listening to this episode of our podcast, which is presented and produced by Chris Garrington. Don’t forget to subscribe to the DIAL podcast to access earlier and forthcoming episodes.