The Burden of Lockdown: Understanding Gender Inequality in the Midst of COVID-19

Author: Heather Asiala

It will come as no surprise that, in many countries of the world, housework and care are still mainly seen as ‘a woman’s job.’  Despite many having full- or part-time work, women today are juggling the roles of housekeeper and cook at home. Research shows that the time women spend on these activities increases if they have care responsibilities at home. This is especially prevalent in households living below the poverty line. 

As millions of people retreat into their homes in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, many women have added teacher, daycare provider, remote worker, and nurse to their daily repertoire.  It has been argued that the implications of lockdown - especially when more people become symptomatic - will disproportionately affect women and their work productivity. In times of uncertainty, change, and anxiety it can be asked: who bears the burden at home? 

Person Estela Rivero 19

Estela Rivero, a Research Associate with Notre Dame’s Pulte Institute for Global Development, has sparked a discussion on this question. A social demographer by trade, Rivero specializes in the formulation and implementation of research studies aimed at improving social interventions and programs. 

“I wanted to explore how the average time that men and women spend on  housework, direct care (caring for household members without doing anything else), and indirect care (caring for household members while doing other activities) changes when there are children out of school and ill individuals in the household,” said Rivero. “In the absence of longitudinal time use data with points before and after the pandemic, I analyzed the data from the 2014 Mexican Time Use Survey to shed light on this question.”

As expected, Rivero found that, in a household with both a mother and a father present, it is women who bear the largest burden of having additional household and care responsibilities at home.

“The increase in time spent on housework varies across circumstances,” explains Rivero. “For example, a woman with young children at home will increase her time spent on household chores by 2.8 hours per week, but will actually decrease her time spent directly caring for her children. On the other hand, a woman who has teenage children at home will not increase her time spent on housework each week, but she will likely decrease the time spent on paid employment and leisure activities.”

No matter the age of the children, Rivero notes that it is time spent on paid employment that women see decreased the most, with many losing an average of four working hours per week. 

“The increased housework and active care responsibilities can be so draining - physically and mentally -  that women may actually see an increase in the amount of hours they spend sleeping. Unfortunately, that means their paid employment often becomes the lowest priority.”

The statistic that is likely to be the most relevant in today’s crisis is the amount of time women spend on direct care for a sick member of the family, which increases from an average of 8 hours to 18.8 hours, or nearly that of a part-time job.

“The difference here is that we tend to see a more participatory distribution of the additional workload across genders when a member of the family is sick, versus when it is just care for children,” concludes Rivero. “Because illness is a non-ordinary event, men tend to increase the time they spend on housework and direct care when there is someone ill in the home. Their increase, however, does not compare to the sharp increase in a woman’s burden.”

As positive cases of the novel coronavirus move into the millions, policy makers, employers, and the general public must be aware of the increased weight the pandemic will place on a woman’s time. Unfortunately, this is also an opportunity to call attention to the persistent inequalities of the distribution of household and care work in many homes across the globe. This sheds light on the need for policies, interventions - such as subsidized child care and paid parental leave for men and women - and behavior change communications that help to change these social norms. 

The data used in this analysis is based on an analysis of the 2014 Mexican Time Use Survey, conducted by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Informatics.

The Pulte Institute for Global Development—an integral part of the new Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame—works to address global poverty and inequality through policy, practice, and partnership.

Contact: Heather Asiala, Communications Program Manager, 574-631-0236,