During the COVID-19 pandemic, heterosexual dual-earner American couples have fallen back onto traditional gender roles that see women taking on more child care responsibilities, despite both parents working full-time, a large study found.
Working parents faced unprecedented challenges at the onset of shelter-in-place orders in March 2020 that shuttered schools and day cares and disrupted work and families. Whether parents worked remotely or in-person, they struggled to navigate and cover child care duties.
In the study, published in November in the Journal of Applied Psychology, lead author Kristen M. Shockley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia and a working mother herself, analyzed the work-family strategies that 274 American couples adopted that March. She then followed up with 133 of the couples several weeks later in May.
The research investigated to what extent these work-family strategies related to the parents’ family functioning, health and job performance, including examining factors such as relationship tension, family cohesion, amount of sleep and psychological distress. Every parent in the study worked a full-time job and had young children under the age of 6.
Shockley found that 36.6% of the couples used strategies in which women did most or all of the child care, 44.5% of the couples used unique, equal strategies and 18.9% used strategies that were not clearly gendered or equal.
“The downside is that almost half of our couples were doing a strategy where [child care] was really falling all or mostly on the wife,” Shockley told The Academic Times. “But then the other half were using a strategy that’s fairly egalitarian.”
The researchers categorized the couples into groups based on strategy, with Remote Wife Does It All and Remote Wife Doing Most comprising the strategies in which women handled all or most of the child care responsibilities, respectively.
The women in the Remote Wife Does It All group had the lowest overall well-being and job performance. In terms of relationship tension, both husbands and wives in the Remote Wife Doing Most group fared among the best, while those husbands and wives in the Remote Wife Does It All group both fared the worst.
“It has been argued that the conditions of the pandemic offered an opportunity for fathers to engage more fully with their family roles and to shift the balance in gender role expectations,” Shockley said in the study. “Instead, the data presented here suggest that the burden of intensive, unexpected and ongoing child care responsibilities is disproportionately falling on mothers.”
The study also identified three unique equal or egalitarian categories, including Alternating Days, in which the parents did not work remotely and reduced their working hours to alternate child care duties; Remote Mini-shift, involving parents who worked remotely and alternated working hours throughout the day; and Remote Need-Based Alternating, which included parents who worked remotely and planned their alternating schedules based on their changing work demands, such as an important meeting.
The researchers found the Alternating Days strategy to be the best overall option that preserved wives’ and husbands’ well-being while allowing both to maintain adequate job performance. This group also fared among the best in terms of health outcomes.
“Both people in these couples were essentially able to keep work and family segmented, which has been linked to better health and performance outcomes,” Shockley said in the study. “This suggests that it may not so much be the separation of gender spheres but rather the separation of work and family life that helps couples thrive.”
Unfortunately, not all working parents are able to implement an arrangement like the Alternating Days strategy from the study. Many jobs don’t offer the necessary amount of flexibility, and reducing hours usually results in income loss. The researchers suggested that improved public policy would help couples achieve such an approach by supplementing incomes or providing flexibility mandates.
Shockley’s main area of research is work-family conflict. The study was developed from firsthand experience when Shockley got word in mid-March 2020 that her son’s day care was closing. Her husband’s job offers minimal flexibility, and they, too, needed to find a strategy for daily child care.
“Outside of the COVID context, I think it’s important to think about this in terms of any crisis situation, and how are families going to handle it when the norm is disrupted?” she said.
The researchers concluded that the study provides important evidence for understanding both “potential downstream career consequences for men and women, and the extent to which the gendered separate spheres of work and home are fixed versus adaptive to crisis.”
Shockley suggested that future research could further examine what effect enhanced communication between parents has on the study’s Remote Need-Based Alternating strategy, which is likely to be popular as the pandemic continues.
The study, "Work-Family Strategies During COVID-19: Examining Gender Dynamics Among Dual-Earner Couples With Young Children," was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology on Nov. 5. Kristen M. Shockley of the University of Georgia was the lead author. Malissa A. Clark and Hope Dodd of the University of Georgia, and Eden B. King of Rice University, served as co-authors.