The COVID-19 pandemic brought about many changes in our daily lives and amplified existing inequalities. Gender roles are being challenged and, at times, reversed. Even in households where partners usually shared the domestic workload equally, the pandemic has shifted much of that burden on women. The initial lockdown and continued social distancing put additional pressure on families as whole and on women in particular.
At the same time, we must acknowledge that working from home brought about many good things as well, such as the opportunity to spend more time with our families and appreciate each other more. In some cases, this led to a better understanding of how the domestic workload should be shared, but also a strengthening of the sense of togetherness.
What we learned from our #EqualPartners survey
At UNDP North Macedonia, we wanted to find out how the pandemic and the resulting lockdown and self-isolation affected our lives at home, especially in terms of how the domestic workload is being shared between partners. We conducted a survey and asked our team to share their thoughts on the matter. This is what we found out from the 38 UNDP staff members that responded (about 60% of our staff – 58 identifying as female and 42 identifying as male):
- 55% live with a souse/partner and children, while 29% live with extended family.
- The share of the time spent on household chores skews towards the women inb the household, with 62% vs. 38% for men.
- 79% of respondents spent more time on domestic duties rather than before the pandemic and 55% spent less time on hobbies and self-care than before the pandemic.
- 66% spent more time home schooling their children and 37% spent more time nursing elders with pre-existing health issues.
- Opinions were equally split on whether working from home contributes to a better work-life balance.
The survey and our discussions around equal sharing showed us that our team has a progressive understanding of gender roles and fights stereotypes, reflects our society with regards to the sharing of domestic duties in a time when the boundary between work and private life is blurred, and wants to make a difference and is supporting equality in every manner!
How can we do better?
“Since sharing is caring! I believe having the men equally involved in the household chores and in home schooling the children, [a good] work-life balance from home will be possible” – UNDP MK staff member.
So why does this matter? The obvious answer is that the sharing domestic responsibilities makes our lives easier, but there is more to it than that. Whether consciously or not, we are setting an example for our children and future generations about what it means to be equal partners.
How do we do this? One staff member was only half-joking when they offered this suggestion: “Build men’s capacities and skills to do the household work in few areas – washing clothes, ironing, cooking etc. can be done by organizing seminars, online or offline, does not matter. :)”
If we don’t want the persistent pandemic to erode family unity, we need to try one or all of the following:
- Teaching young people that there are no male or female jobs.
- Women trusting men to do the job as good as them.
- Mutual understanding and agreement between partners and on the division of work.
Yet, we still need to acknowledge the diversity of our families: a single person household, partners, partners with children, single parents, partners living with extended family, roommates, and many other combinations. In cases of the single-parent households, the luxury of sharing responsibilities is non-existent, especially if the children are too young to be engaged in major tasks. But giving some responsibilities to children helps them to learn and develop empathy towards their hardworking parents while also preparing them for the future. Here too, we should be cautious not to reinforce gender stereotypes through the tasks we share with our children. As one survey respondent put it: “We need to educate our children (both girls & boys) about the gender stereotypes and how we could all contribute to making a positive change in that aspect.”
We must also accept that a fair share does not necessarily have to mean a fifty-fifty split of all household tasks between partners. Rather, it is better understood as a complementary partnership where each member of the household contributes according to their abilities and strengths while remaining open to learning to help with novel tasks. As one of our colleagues put it: “One team cannot be successful if they equally share their tasks. Each member of the team has different skills and background and contributes differently within the team success. Same is in the family, where everyone must make joint efforts for all assignments to be finished, without putting the pressure on one member.”
At the end of the day, times is a resource and one that we have no choice but to share with others, especially when circumstances lead us to spend more time in our homes and with our families. Therefore, how we spend the 24 hours we get each day should be a decision made by the whole family. Even when we have to spend that time on chores that bore us, like doing the dishes and laundry, doing so as a family is not only easier, but also an opportunity to have fun, to learn, to teach and to grow closer to one another. In this moment in history when many of us are spending more time at home and with our loved ones, while the stress of the pandemic challenges the strength of even our closest relationships, doing our equal share is more important than ever.