Unequal burden: how the COVID-19 pandemic is adding to women’s workloads

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Alex Thornton, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • COVID-19 restrictions mean both men and women spend longer doing jobs around the home.
  • Women have seen a larger increase in unpaid work than men.
  • Evidence shows that COVID-19 is reinforcing traditional social and cultural gender norms.
  • A new report for UN Women analyses data from 38 countries around the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic downturn it has caused, have hit everyone hard. But the impact has not been spread equally. A new report by UN Women has found clear evidence that, although both genders have seen their unpaid workloads increase, women are bearing more of the burden than men.

a chart showing how childcare is divided between men and women
Women still do much more than men. Image: “Whose time to care?”, UN Women

Even before the pandemic, women were spending on average three times as many hours as men on domestic chores, childcare and looking after vulnerable or elderly loved ones. Widespread restrictions on daily life, school closures, disruption to businesses and a big rise in working from home have made many tasks more time-consuming and arduous.

As the following charts show, more women than men have reported an increase in their workload in almost every aspect of domestic life.

Putting in the extra hours

The data also shows more men saying that they usually don’t do a particular task.

The average woman now spends nearly the equivalent of a full-time job doing unpaid childcare – a full working day a week more than the average man. —“Whose time to care?”, UN Women

Nearly a third of women report spending more time cooking and serving meals, compared to just under a fifth of men. Half of all men say they don’t normally get involved in preparing food at all.

a chart showing the division of domestic labour
Women are more likely to increase the time spent on household chores. Image: “Whose time to care?”, UN Women

A similar picture emerges when looking at childcare. Research for UN Women carried out by Ipsos in 16 countries showed that before the pandemic women spent an average of 26 hours per week looking after children, compared to 20 hours a week for men. That has now risen by 5.2 hours for women, and just 3.5 hours for men. As a result, the average woman now spends nearly the equivalent of a full-time job doing unpaid childcare – a full working day a week more than the average man.

a chart showing how childcare differs by sex across countries
The time spent on childcare, as divided by sex, differs across countries. Image: “Whose time to care?”, UN Women

And as the chart shows, there are big regional differences. Although every nation surveyed showed a rise, the effects were most pronounced in less affluent countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa, compared to wealthier countries.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.How can we collaborate to stop the spread of COVID-19?

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Like mother, like daughter

The pandemic has reaffirmed the persistence of gender bias in social and cultural norms. All but a small fraction of men acknowledge that their wives or partners are doing more around the house, while just two-thirds of women say the same of their husbands or partners.

Perhaps more concerning for gender equality in the future is that parents are more likely to notice their daughter doing more to help than their sons.

a pie chart showing how women do more
Women bare the heaviest burden. Image: “Whose time to care?”, UN Women

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle racial injustice and inequality. In response, the Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society has established a high-level community of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers. The community will develop a vision, strategies and tools to proactively embed equity into the post-pandemic recovery and shape long-term inclusive change in our economies and societies.

As businesses emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, they have a unique opportunity to ensure that equity, inclusion and justice define the “new normal” and tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity. It is increasingly clear that new workplace technologies and practices can be leveraged to significantly improve diversity, equity and inclusion outcomes.

The World Economic Forum has developed a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Toolkit, to outline the practical opportunities that this new technology represents for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, while describing the challenges that come with it.

The toolkit explores how technology can help reduce bias from recruitment processes, diversify talent pools and benchmark diversity and inclusion across organisations. The toolkit also cites research that suggests well-managed diverse teams significantly outperform homogenous ones over time, across profitability, innovation, decision-making and employee engagement.

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Toolkit is available here.

A reversal of progress made?

The overall effect is that the gradual progress towards gender equality seen in recent decades could not only stall, but be reversed.

Already more than 28 million women over the age of 25 are estimated to have left the labour market altogether in 55 high- and middle-income countries over the last year, compared to 24 million men. Given that women were already less likely to be in the workforce, this represents a serious threat to the economic status of huge numbers of women. On a global scale, it’s thought the pandemic will push a further 47 million women and girls into extreme poverty by 2021.

Despite the clear evidence that women are disproportionately suffering economically from the effects of the pandemic, the vast majority of measures that have been enacted by policy-makers do little to address the increased burden on women.

However, there are some notable exceptions: increases in monthly child allowance payments in places like Argentina, expanding paid parental leave programmes in Italy and Belgium, and providing extra support for childcare either by keeping crèches and nurseries open (as in Australia) or compensating parents affected by closures (as in Germany and South Korea).

Perhaps the biggest step would be simply recognizing the value of the unpaid domestic and caring work done by women, pandemic or not. The 16 billion hours spent on unpaid caring every day would represent nearly a tenth of the world’s entire economic output if it was paid at a fair rate. Women were grossly undervalued before the pandemic – now the situation is getting even worse.

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