India’s national coronavirus lockdown expanded the oeuvre of the Whatsapp Uncle jokes: Men brandished brooms, shared jokes such as “Microsoft Excel in the morning and Surf Excel in the evening”. Some declared how their lives were truly dedicated to BJP, not the ruling party, but bartan, jhadu, pocha – dishes, sweeping and mopping – activities that are done by women in Indian households every single day.
Were these messages and images of middle-class men showing off their participation in domestic work, harbingers of change? How widespread were these changes? To put it simply, have Covid-19’s containment measures, the absence of domestic workers, and work from home directives pushed Indian men to actually do more housework than before?
The preliminary answer is “Yes” for the first month of lockdown.
To answer this question, we need hard data on how men and women spend time at home. These data, usually called time-use data, are not easily available for India.
Time use surveys are tricky to implement for several reasons, including the fact that women multi-task more than men, which makes it difficult to isolate time spent on each activity. The last official time use survey conducted by the National Sample Survey was in 1998-99 across six states in India. The survey showed men spend significantly more time on income earning and personal care (including leisure) activities compared to women. Women spent 10 times as much time on household work, including unpaid work on family enterprises, compared to men.
The only source of data for the post-lockdown period is the high-frequency Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE)’s Consumer Pyramids Household Survey (CPHS). We have data for April 2020, the first month of the nationwide lockdown, on a variety of indicators, including how many hours individuals spent on domestic work. About 63% of those surveyed were from nationally representative urban households with the remainder from rural households, and represented a whole range of occupations from farmers, daily wagers to the salaried middle class.
These individuals were previously interviewed in December 2019; this allows us to compare the pre- and post-pandemic answers for the same set of men and women.
My estimates show that compared to December, the time spent on domestic work increased for both men and women. But the increase (relative to their respective December averages) was 32% greater for men than for women, which meant that the gender gap in hours spent on domestic work declined.
This increase in men doing housework was primarily driven by men who were not working in April 2020. Comparing women by their employment status, employed women (women in paid work) put fewer hours in domestic work compared to unemployed women (women not doing paid work), but this gap decreased during April 2020, i.e. the increase in time spent in domestic work was greater for employed women, relative to unemployed women.
It is also worth noting that the data confirms that, even with men helping out more around the house in April 2020, domestic chores are still overwhelmingly performed by women. In this sense, India is not an exception to the global pattern. It is also remains to be seen if this trend persists after April 2020.
Another dimension of time allocation is leisure, a fundamental component of our well-being, which for women is often a luxury. Particularly when we are locked down and spend most of our time indoors, with uncertainty writ large on the prospect of return to some semblance of normalcy, leisure is even more important than usual. Time spent with friends not only signifies leisure but also the possibility of de-stressing with someone outside the family, which is very important for emotional well-being.
My estimates show that time spent with friends decreased in April by 58% compared to December for both men and women, but relatively more for women (additional 32% more than men). Thus, in addition to the pressure of decreased employment, women had to bear the brunt of less time with their friends.
The Global Picture
Everywhere in the world, women have always done more housework than men. Yet, despite the much greater equality in sharing of housework in the developed countries compared to South Asia, the lockdown stories point to the persistent inequality in the actual sharing of work. Surveys also reveal how men overestimate their contributions to housework. In the US, nearly half of the men said they did homeschooling, only 3% of the women agreed.
Could Indian men be overstating the time spent on domestic work? It is hard to say.
But my estimates are based on pre- and post-pandemic responses from the same set of men. Any overestimation would reflect in both responses, and the difference over time is more likely to capture the actual change in hours.
“Indian women, recognising the crisis as an opportunity for change, are asking: “Does the handle of a jhadu (broom) come printed with the words: ‘to be operated by women only’?””
For those lucky enough to have jobs, work during lockdown shifted from the workplace into the home. A key dimension of work from home (WFH) is having to juggle multiple demands.
A study for England examines the quality of time at work, which is critical for productivity and learning. As the authors emphasise, this could impact future earnings and career progression. They find that mothers and fathers doing paid work used to be interrupted during the same proportion of their work hours before the crisis; after the crisis, mothers are interrupted over 50% more often.
Will Covid-19 Shift Gender Norms?
South Asia in general, India, and Pakistan in particular, have among the most unequal division of housework globally. South Asia and MENA (Middle East and North Africa) are the laggards in terms of shifting to more gender egalitarian norms of sharing domestic work.
But norms change. Over the 20th century, hours spent on domestic work (planning, buying goods and services, childcare, elderly care, cleaning, cooking, laundry, washing dishes) have changed such that hours spent by women on these tasks have declined, whereas they have increased for men. There is plenty of evidence on this from developed countries, such as the US.
Sometimes severe shocks can accelerate the shift in social norms: for instance, the years after World War II resulted in a rise in female labour force participation in OECD countries. This was also a time when the division of domestic chores shifted towards greater equality.
Specifically in the context of this pandemic, a study for the US finds that beyond the immediate crisis, work norms which normalize work from home as well as the norms of fathers participating in childcare might “erode social norms that currently lead to a lopsided distribution of the division of labor in house work and child care”. A study for Turkey finds that men’s participation in unpaid work increased substantially, especially for men who switched to working from home and decreased their employment hours. However, they find that the increase for women was even more, which further widened the gender gap in unpaid work, unlike the evidence for India.
A particularly poignant article sums up the harsh dilemma facing parents, particularly women, in the US: “In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both.” In India, the shift in gender norms related to domestic work is badly needed, as Indian women’s participation in paid work has been persistently low and declining. My earlier research shows that being primarily responsible for housework is a major factor underlying the low levels.
Indian women, recognising the crisis as an opportunity for change, are asking: “Does the handle of a jhadu (broom) come printed with the words: ‘to be operated by women only’?”