How COVID-19 has upended the lives of working parents
The rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent countermeasures, such as school closures and the shift to working from home, are disrupting economic activity around the world. As with other major economic shocks, there is a threat of increased inequality between groups differentially affected by these disruptions. Early research shows that the pandemic has disproportionately affected women’s employment relative to men’s, with women being more likely to lose their job and drop out of the labor force. But what about the effects of COVID-19 disruptions on men and women who are still working?
To answer this question, Olga Shurchkov, Jenna Stearns, and I administered a global survey to a diverse group of academic researchers to understand how COVID-19 has changed their time allocation. To place these changes in context, we also asked about respondents’ circumstances, such as the number and ages of children in the household. Nearly 20,000 active researchers, of whom 33 percent were female, fully completed the survey.
Prior to COVID-19, the average researcher worked about 9 hours per workday, not including commute time. Although men and women worked comparable amounts on average, women spent about 30 minutes less per workday on research and more time on other job responsibilities such as teaching, advising, and administrative tasks. Women also spent about 40 more minutes on childcare than men. Overall, the pandemic affected both male and female researchers, reducing daily work hours by about 45 minutes for men and by about one hour for women (see Figure 1). Almost all of this decline was driven by a reduction in time spent doing research and was accompanied by an increase in childcare and other housework: women’s time spent on childcare activities increased by about 80 minutes per workday, compared to 50 minutes for men.
These gendered declines in work time are fully explained by the presence of children in the household. As Figure 1 shows, childless women’s work time decreased by only slightly less than childless men’s (15 versus 20 minutes less, respectively). But the differences are much more extreme among researchers with kids. While men with children worked about 75 minutes less per workday due to COVID-19 disruptions, women with children worked almost two hours less per workday. The most severe work disruptions occurred in families in which the youngest child was under 7 years of age, with fathers of young children reducing work time by two hours and mothers reducing it by nearly three hours per workday. These changes in work time were more than fully replaced by increases in childcare time for both mothers and fathers, but the gender gap in time spent caring for children increased by one hour.
Our results may underestimate the adverse effects of the pandemic on academics with children. For example, parents supervising children at home may engage simultaneously in childcare and research activities, making them less productive in both. The data also do not allow us to measure changes in overall well-being or mental health of either parents or their children. While more research is needed to fully capture the lasting effects of the pandemic on parents, our work suggests that, like in many other occupations, COVID-19 has disproportionately disadvantaged academic mothers relative to academic fathers and childless individuals.
Gender gaps among academics have been historically large, in terms of rank, research output, and impact, and these gaps appear to have widened since the onset of COVID-19. In the long run, the disproportionate loss of research time could mean even further under-representation of women in academia. Consequences could include fewer innovations and breakthroughs in research, less attention directed to topics of importance to underrepresented groups, and fewer students whose professors and mentors look like them.