Father reading to baby

Could COVID-19 lead to greater gender equality?

Pandemics, like many cataclysmic global events, have the potential to usher in profound changes to society. The Black Plague in the 14th century set many serfs free in Europe and eventually forced wages to rise; the influenza epidemic of 1918 fell disproportionately hard on men and brought more women into the workplace as a result.

What will be the legacy of COVID-19?

It might be greater equality, suggest Weinberg College Professor of Economics Matthias Doepke and doctoral student Jane Olmstead-Rumsey. They, along with co-authors Titan M. Alon of the University of California-San Diego and Michele Tertilt of the University of Mannheim, make that case in a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Many people are losing their jobs as a result of the pandemic — men as well as women. But, as the economists note, the industries that society is relying upon to persevere through the crisis — healthcare, pharmacies and grocery stores — employ a large percentage of women. Those doctors, nurses, pharmacists and clerks are continuing to head out to work, even as their partners are working at home in response to shelter-in-place orders.

Of course, many women have been by their employers to work at home as well. But with the mass closure of daycare centers and schools, many men now find themselves shouldering an increasing share of childcare duties as the grandparents, friends and neighbors who previously might have pitched in are staying socially distant, as prescribed.

The burden of caring for children who are suddenly home 24/7 will probably continue to fall more heavily on women. But the economists note that many fathers may find themselves with little choice but to take more responsibility the kids if their wives are to meet their work-at-home responsibilities as well. And the income that those women bring into the home will be ever more essential as the pandemic costs more workers their jobs.

In the end, the increased time that men spend caring for their children may well have “at least some persistent effect on future contributions to child care, be it through learning by doing, more information about what kids are actually doing all day, or through increased attachment to children,” the economists say.

Another side effect that may bode well for gender equality? The sudden and widespread adoption of flexible work arrangements in response to mandates to shelter in place. And now that working at home is no longer the exception but the norm, many organizations may well leave at least some of those arrangements in place even after the pandemic subsides.

“Once businesses have invested in remote-working technology and the learning-by-doing that is involved in the transition … [returning] all the way to the status quo is not attractive,” the economists observe.

It’s hard to change, but once change comes, it can even harder to change back. That may be the case for gender equality, both inside and outside the home, after the threat of COVID-19 recedes.