• The FACT Team

‘Don’t rock the boat’: Has lockdown transformed gendered divisions of paid and unpaid work?

This blog summarises some initial findings from the UK project

Media reports at the beginning of lockdown suggested that the pandemic would provoke radical transformations in men and women’s divisions of paid and unpaid work. On the one hand, some argued that the pandemic was a ‘disaster’ for feminism, with patterns of care and work returning to the 1950s, when women took all or nearly all responsibility for home and children (see for example here). On the other hand, there were those that argued that with men spending more time at home, there would be much more sharing of childcare and housework (eg see here). Our research has thus far indicated no such radical transformation in either direction. Rather, patterns of care and housework from before the pandemic largely remained the same, albeit with more hours undertaken overall. As seen in the accounts from two different families:

Housework hasn't really changed, apart from getting more time to do it as we are not out and about at the weekends. We share out housework duties between us and that hasn't changed since lock down.

Echinacea Dad

Domestic task wise, my Mum definitely does the lion's share, although if we're doing a full house clean me and my brothers take a bathroom/shower room/loo each. This has always been the situation before and after lockdown, although mum is now getting lunch for everyone every day, which we'd have usually got at school.

Daffodil Daughter

Time use studies conducted during lockdown (April 2020) uncovered similar results; on average, parents were doing childcare during 9 hours of the day, and housework during 3. But while men have doubled the time they spend on childcare, they still do less than women (Andrew et al 2020).

We identified the following reasons for these continued patterns in divisions of paid and unpaid work:

1. As more unpaid work was needed to be done, both women and men reported doing more, but had often started from an uneven base. Where they had started from a more even base, this continued.

2. For those women who were unhappy about divisions of care and housework, a time of high tension was not necessarily seen as a point to address entrenched patterns. Rather they expressed a certain amount of acceptance or inevitability, as seen here with one participant:

No it [housework] isn't evenly spread. Happy isn't the word that comes to mind when I consider this but I do accept it. I don't enjoy it but my sense of self respect and a sense of what I want to project about us as a unit and about myself means that I would routinely clean, scour, hoover, polish and tidy before lockdown. […] There's always some trade off in a marriage.

3. Women’s paid work is more often seen as of a lesser priority than men’s (Miller 2017) and this could also be seen with our participants. In this context, it ‘makes more sense’ for women to take on more unpaid work. As Alium Mum describes:

My job has always been less well paid and I’ve changed careers several times / had three children / work part time etc so it has to be my role that is affected - not his. Which of course means I remain the less paid / lower-on career ladder person! Tricky how to change this - our lives have become how they are and ways of being become embedded. Being furloughed has meant there really isn’t any choice but if I hadn’t been furloughed I would have reduced my hours right down anyway and [husband] would not have changed his.

Allium Mum

Alium Mum’s experience is echoed in the research conducted by Andrew et al (2020), who found that women were more likely than men to quit their jobs, reduce hours or take furlough during lockdown.

4. We also have seven single parent households in our study. These families are all headed by women, who reported very high increases in childcare and housework with often reduced help from (ex)partners or other family members due to lockdown restrictions. Here Orange Mum speaks about the added burden of lunchtime meals while schools are closed:

You know they only were at home for one extra, meal like lunch, 'cause normally they have breakfast…go to school, have lunch at school and come home and have dinner at home. But for one extra meal, it felt like I was in the kitchen all day.

Orange Mum

In some families, however, where fathers were used to long commutes or where he was furloughed, the lack of commute did enable more participation in childcare and housework. Still, in no case did couples move from an uneven share to what they considered an even share.

These increases in childcare and housework left participants across the entire study, particularly women who were taking on the greater amount of these tasks, as very stressed and tired, sometimes also creating conflict between partners, as Gardenia Mum here describes:

The burden of housework and childcare on me sometimes gets too much and it makes me seriously stressed. The worst thing is when my husband claims that he helps which is so infuriating that I could seriously just scream!!!!

Gardenia Mum

In short, the gender ‘revolution’ that had been hopefully anticipated by some does not seem to have materialised. Instead, for our participants at least, the pandemic appears to have acted as a solidifying force in terms of intra-household relationships, often with knock-on implications for gender inequality. For parents of young children, the closure of schools and nurseries created huge pressure as they attempted to deal with increased work-loads on the domestic front, as well as (for some) keeping up with responsibilities at work. But interestingly, this did not appear to be a catalyst in terms of re-structuring the division of household labour – it was not a time to ‘rock the boat’, but rather one which required all energy to be directed at just getting through. Schools remain open for now, but with new lockdown measures on the horizon, this trend does not seem likely to change as we enter the winter. Indeed, the gendered implications of this ‘solidification’ in terms of women’s participation in the workforce, and their well-being in general, will no doubt be a legacy of the pandemic for many years to come.


Miller, T. (2017) Making Sense of Parenthood, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Andrew, A. et al (2020) How are mothers and fathers balancing work and family under lockdown? IFS Briefing Note BN290

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