Unprecedented… But Familiar?

covid-19 gender equality
Will COVID-19 cause a massive backwards step in gender equality?


There is no doubt we are living in #unprecedented times. The global scale and spread of disruption caused by COVID-19 is indeed unlike anything in living memory. But what is going on behind the closed front doors of socially-isolating families seems to be conforming to well-worn patterns of behaviour. Will the pandemic actually end in a familiar place, with economic impacts and changing care responsibilities sending gender roles back towards the 1950s?

One of the most surprising things about the coronavirus pandemic so far is how much things can change without really changing at all. If you told me a year ago that pubs, borders, schools and dog parks would be closed due to an invisible airborne virus, I would’ve put at least even money on the response being a horror movie intro, fights at petrol stations, looting, general chaos. Instead it’s a so far been a strange combo of cottage porn and hungover Sundays; sourdough starters, driveway drinks and family walks.

This is obviously a great relief. The only role I’ve ever identified with in horror movies is an extra who dies at the beginning, hopefully quickly. But it also means that we’ve carried a lot of well-precedented things into our “unprecedented times”: women carrying the brunt of the mental load and physical responsibilities of child care and domestic tasks, being over-represented in casual work, particularly in care sectors, and under-represented in leadership positions.

It’s tempting to think that because the pandemic has upended our lives, things will settle in a more equitable way. But research from previous pandemics shows that is not the way it usually plays out. After the Ebola crisis in West Africa, men’s income returned to their pre-outbreak levels faster than women’s. So far in Australia, 456,000 people have applied for early withdrawal of superannuation, at an average of $8,000 per person. If we assume that half of these are women, that represents around 4% of working women who have been forced to eat into their super. Women already retire with an average of 47% less super than men, and early withdrawals can make a huge dent in retirement savings.

What’s more, early indications show that it’s not actually playing out equitably in this pandemic either. While almost all mothers and fathers have had to take on more care responsibilities with many schools and childcare centres closed, women are still bearing the majority of the mental load. With schools closed, it’s women who are more likely to be shouldering the increased responsibility of online learning – emailing teachers, supervising lessons, dreaming up craft activities. (One teacher friend reported that all the dozens of calls and emails she’d received from parents not one had come from a father!) Women were more likely to already be working part time or casually and more likely to already know the teacher’s name, the planned curriculum for Term 2 and the best Instagram accounts to follow for craft ideas.

With the added stress of coronavirus, it can seem like now is just the time to shelve second order issues, like the mental load imbalance. And I am all for taking the easiest path right now! But whilst the path most familiar to most of us involves bearing almost all the mental load, this is by no means the easiest path.

Our next blog post will explore how the pandemic can actually be a good time to form new habits including sharing the mental load. It’s also a great time to model these behaviours to your kids, when you can’t get away from them anyway!

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