Since our children were born, my husband has been at every doctor’s appointment I can remember. We are always together at every parent teacher conference. Yet, when it comes time for questions like, “Do you feel like your daughter is getting a balanced diet?” or “How’s it going at home with long division?” the teacher or doctor always looks to me, and only to me. This is in no way ill intentioned; these are professionals who are engaging in a kind of pattern recognition. If your experience shows that matters related to the care and comfort of children are the domain of the female, you will turn to that person instinctively.
In the U.S. – as it is around the world – women are seen as default providers of care for their families. One study found that women are 10 times more likely than men to take time off to stay home with their sick children.
But what happens when life turns into one long sick day? It looks like a “shecession” with women’s unemployment considerably outpacing that of men. As it is, the employment gains for women have been erased in only a few short months since COVID-19 took hold. New Oxfam research from various countries around the world shows that in the midst of the pandemic, women are spending their days doing unpaid care and domestic work – cooking, cleaning, shopping for the family — not advancing their careers. And while two-thirds of men report that they are cooking and cleaning as much as or more than women are, only one-third of women agree.
The imbalance in care is particularly acute for Women of Color and Asian women. Oxfam and Promundo’s new research in the US found that while 57% of White women say that their daily domestic and care work has increased, 71% of Black or African American women, 71% of Latina women and 79% of Asian women said their care duties have increased.
Now, as the economy opens back up and employers start wavering on accommodations around caring for children while working from home, we need to avoid falling into accepted patterns that women should shoulder the continued uncertainty around school and daycare availability. If we don’t address this, we’ll see widespread attrition of women from the workforce and women becoming more economically dependent on their partners. Not only will women be worse off, but, if men pull back from caregiving as women stay home at higher rates, our sons and daughters will be worse off too.
It is time for men to lean in. Men themselves benefit from greater engagement in caregiving, including improved physical, mental, and sexual health and reduced risk-taking. Men who are involved in the home and with their children report the relationship is one of their most important sources of well-being and happiness. It is good for children, too. There is ample evidence from all over the world that engaged fatherhood has a positive impact on boys and girls – and the relationships they will have as adults.
But large-scale shifts need to happen to keep us all from backsliding.
Men can advocate for their employers to strengthen parental leave benefits and paid family leave benefits while carrying out workplace-based campaigns that demonstrate a workplace environment that fully supports the caregiving duties of women and men equally. Men should encourage other men to lean into childcare. Humans are social creatures, taking cues from those around them. What people believe, what they see in the media, and what those around them believe often determine how individuals behave and act.
We can all call on our lawmakers to support the passage of the Child Care is Essential Act, which would provide $50 billion in immediate funds to the child care industry. This Act would ensure that essential workers—men and women alike—will not have to choose between keeping their jobs and staying home to care for their children. Additionally, it will ensure that the already fragile childcare industry will not collapse due to COVID-19, meaning workers—again, particularly women workers—can depend on childcare services that were present before the pandemic and go back into the workplace.
The question is, what kind of future do we want for this country? We are at the precipice of going back in time, of losing the gains for women in workforce engagement and of men in equal roles in caring for their children and families. Men – and women – must act now to push for changes that are good for all of us.