SALT LAKE CITY — While folks ponder how the pandemic might alter the economy and work life, a trio of researchers believe it may have an unexpected impact on home life, changing how couples divide household tasks and the quality of their relationship.

Women still do more at home, but men have been tackling more household chores and child care than they were before the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to a briefing report for the Council on Contemporary Families.

The authors say the pattern will likely persist after the crisis, based partly on what happens when men take paternity leave: As they spend that time at home, they help more and continue to do so after they return to work, said Daniel L. Carlson, study co-author and professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah. He also said more men may work from home when the crisis ends, and studies show men who work from home also do more household chores.

“Both suggest patterns are being established now that will persist,” Carlson said.

How couples share chores matters because studies show couples are happier and their relationships are more apt to endure with more equitable division of labor. Men sharing jobs at home — including cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping and tending to the children — also helps women who want to pursue careers, especially since most women already have jobs outside the home, he said.

Men and women agreed in a survey that they’re generally sharing domestic tasks more equally than before the pandemic — with the exception of households where the women always did almost all the housework and child care. Those women still do so — and they’ve added other chores, especially since women take on most home schooling responsibility (about 70%, the report said).

The couples who recently increased how equitably they share labor at home were already splitting chores to some degree before the pandemic, the report said, though not as much as they do now.

No households have less sharing of household chores than they did before the pandemic, the researchers found.

In the past, when the gap narrowed between how much women and men were doing at home, it was because women were doing less than before, said co-author Joanna Pepin, a postdoctoral fellow at University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research Center. Since the pandemic started, the gap is smaller because men are doing more.

This survey

The New York Times and USA Today both recently had surveys on how home chores are divided during the pandemic, finding women do more, including home schooling.

While the new report acknowledges that, the researchers say the pandemic is temporary and home schooling will end. When home schooling is removed and both men’s and women’s accounts on what each gender does is taken into account, the new report suggests a more egalitarian trend will unfold. The researchers found a smaller gap between men and women than the other surveys — and reason to believe chores will continue to be more evenly shared, the trio of researchers said.

The report is based on an online survey of 1,060 parents in opposite-sex couples who were asked to compare the division of household chores before the pandemic began and about a month into it. By then, many men and women were working from home and schools were closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

  • Among the highlights, the researchers report that:
    The amount of time spent on household tasks, including homework, hasn’t increased for 60% of the couples. While there’s more cooking and other chores to do because families have been at home, parents aren’t shuttling kids to school or piano lessons, planning their activities or attending their events, so it’s roughly even.
  • The portion of couples who say they share household chores is now 41%, up 15% since just before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
  • Now, 56% say they also share child-related responsibilities, up 11%.

Different takes

“Getting men more involved in domestic work continues to be one of, if not the biggest barriers to increasing gender equality,” said Richard J. Petts, professor of sociology at Ball State University and one of the co-authors.

He hopes raising the visibility of domestic work will increase the respect it gets. “If we value it more and if we share it more, then everybody’s better off in the long run,” including children who benefit from having their dads more involved in their care, he said.

It’s also important to acknowledge when men are trying to be more helpful and involved at home, if people value that behavior, he said. “Largely speaking, when any work is unacknowledged and underappreciated, people are less likely to engage in that work any more.”

Petts hopes employers take into account men’s more active roles at home. They know home creates some burdens on employment, like when a child is sick. The more a workplace also expects men — not just women — to engage in that work, the more likely there will be less workplace inequality between genders, Petts said.

While men and women agree that men are doing more than they used to in helping at home, they have different takes on what’s happening. Both exaggerate their own contributions, Carlson said, but men also exaggerate how much women do. Women are more stingy in their assessment of what men do. The researchers conclude that the truth lies somewhere in between.