Globally, more than 1.3 billion children are out of school because of the coronavirus pandemic. Parents are frazzled. Children are antsy. And the whole thing is proving a major shock to society.Four economists have a hypothesis for how this shock could play out on a massive scale. In a new research paper, Matthias Doepke and Jane Olmstead-Rumsey of Northwestern University, Titan Alon of the University of California San Diego and Michèle Tertilt of the University of Mannheim predict two big outcomes for gender equality.First, the bad news: Over the short run, they predict, working moms will shoulder a higher burden than dads when it comes to providing childcare in the pandemic.But there’s also good news: Millions of dads have suddenly been forced to stay home with their kids. This historic moment could forever shift dynamics in both firms and families, leading to greater gender equality down the road.Here’s how.
Why moms have it harder
The coronavirus recession will be different than any other downturn for many reasons. Among them: the way it impacts women and men in the labor force.First, some history. Early on in recessions, it’s common for men to lose more jobs than women. The Great Recession, for example, was even nicknamed the “mancession” because initially men bore 78% of the job losses. This happens in part because men dominate sectors like manufacturing and construction, which are prone to steep declines in an economic downturn, whereas women dominate jobs in nursing and teaching, which are more resistant to job losses.With the coronavirus recession, however, the steepest layoffs early on are in low-wage service jobs, which are closer to 50-50, if not slightly skewed toward women. Women hold 52% of restaurant jobs, 60% of hotel jobs and 50% of retail jobs, for example. According to Doepke and his colleagues, women are also slightly less likely than men to work in occupations that have high rates of telecommuting, like computer, financial and mathematical professions.For working moms in any of these groups, serving as the primary childcare provider is more of a necessity than a choice now that work has dried up and schools are closed.
Among middle class and higher income couples — particularly those who have the ability to work from home — job losses may not be as severe, but tradeoffs within families will still be common. After all, someone has to watch the kids. In heterosexual couples, that responsibility is still likely to fall on women.That’s for several reasons including the pay gap and social norms. On average, working women make less than their male partners, spend more time on unpaid household labor including cooking, cleaning and childcare, and are more likely to sacrifice their own careers to prioritize their partner’s work. These things are all true today even though women have made significant strides over the last 50 years.As of 2017, men still out-earned women in 69% of heterosexual couples, according toan analysis by the Pew Research Center. That pay gap, for many families, leads to a default decision to prioritize the husband’s career.”In the majority of households, where the man is the higher earner, there is going to be a temptation to cater to his career — and it’s not impossible that it could have longer term effects,” said Francine Blau, an economics professor at Cornell University who has conducted numerous studies on the gender pay gap.It’s not just money that makes the decision. Even in families where women are the higher breadwinner, research has shown moms are more likely than dads to opt out of the labor force to care for children.
“In a lot of cases, gender trumps money,” said Kristin Smith, a visiting research associate professor at Dartmouth who wrote her Ph.D dissertation on that phenomenon. “Our social roles are so much more powerful in decision-making than money.”All these dynamics are unfolding in households now in response to the dearth of childcare during the coronavirus pandemic. Which is why it’s not surprising Doepke and his colleagues hypothesize working moms are likely picking up the largest share of childcare and homeschooling in many homes.It will take years for economists to collect all the data and analyze whether this was actually the case. But right now, they are also hopeful this moment could eventually lead to lasting change.
Originally posted on CNN