In Chile, coronavirus cases have been growing daily, and since mid-March of last year schools and daycare centers have been closed in Santiago and across the country. The government has ordered diverse communities to quarantine, limiting residents’ mobility, and everyone has been compelled to practice social distancing. Families are isolated, most lacking the services of either domestic workers or grandmothers who could help with childcare and/or household chores (accentuated by COVID-19 cleaning protocols to prevent contamination). In most families it has fallen to parents to take over caring for their sons and daughters. However, the division of domestic chores and childcare is not egalitarian. As Norma E. Silva Sá reveals in the report below, it is women who are bearing the brunt of the work, a clear reflection of gender inequality in Chile.
A poll conducted in 14 Latin American countries found that only 3.2 percent of men were out of the workforce specifically because they had to take on domestic chores or caretaking, while 50 percent of all women old enough to be in the workforce declared the same. Even though the number of women in the job market has been expanding in Chile, it has not necessarily led to changes in the unequal distribution of nonremunerated work. The conventional male and female roles remain divided, profoundly ingrained in Chilean culture. The coronavirus pandemic brought into focus the importance of household responsibilities, making obvious the unequal division of those responsibilities between men and women.
While different surveys report that men are increasingly “interested” in becoming involved in the care of their children when they become fathers, many men see their role as participating in their children’s games, outings, and supporting them with their schoolwork— in other words, not as the main caretaker. That is the conclusion of research reported in the International Men and Gender Equality Services or IMAGES. In another recent study, State of the World’s Fathers, 85 percent of dads said that they would be willing to do whatever it takes to be involved in the care of their newborn or adopted child during the first few weeks or months. Even though survey results appear optimistic, there are structural and social barriers that inhibit men from being primary caregivers of their sons and daughters. Traditional stereotypes remain entrenched. The result? Men remain primary providers and women run the home. Both are caught not just in the vise of rigid gender norms, but also in unequal parental leave policies. Simply put, the division of labor is dictated according to gender.
Such a gendered division of labor is rooted in relationships being seen as “natural” between authority figures and subordinates, suggesting they were biologically determined. They emphasize gender roles that assign responsibilities and activities differently for men and women. This division of labor according to sex is the basis upon which gender inequalities are sustained. They do not affect all women equally, particularly since class, ethnicity, race, age, and nationality are categories designed to measure gender productivity.
Living during pandemic times has brought into sharp relief the notion of the “cared for” and the perception of who is filling the essential jobs that sustain life, from those working in health care, supermarkets, and pharmacies, and continuing through those in child care, as in daycare, nannies, aunts and grandmothers.
Staying home during a health crisis could have pushed men to become involved both in the education of their sons and daughters and in the division of domestic labor. Given that the crisis has forced changes in daily routines and attitudes, there is the possibility of overcoming preexisting gendered barriers, including, for example, the stigma attached to men for staying home.
The pandemic has also presented an opportunity for personal change. Being isolated at home with young children presents fathers with the opportunity to become more involved as caretakers. The article, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research noted that a considerable number of men would be at home during the crisis, whether because they are unemployed, teleworking, or because their workplace was closed temporarily or otherwise. These conditions could be an opportunity for fathers to familiarize themselves with their children’s household routines. In this scenario if women are employed outside of the home, these fathers become the principal caretakers. A silver lining in the pandemic is the resulting necessary readjustment of gender roles where rigid role models and the division of work in the home have been turned on their head.
Pandemic-mandated home care, covered in newspaper articles and on television news, has stimulated much dialogue in public spaces. With jobs moving from offices and markets to the home, telework emerged without a plan—or previous agreement—as a response. These changes in work routines—mainly telework—have affected the lives of millions of families, and the consequences have not gone unnoticed by Santiago couples, especially the experiences of new parents. These couples have had to simultaneously care for their young in the midst of a pandemic and navigate a new, remote form of working.
While interviewing upper middle class heterosexual couples — professionals with graduate degrees and stable employment — researchers found that men’s paid jobs were perceived as more important than women’s unpaid work caring for children. Mothers continue to assume most of the responsibilities at home, and if they were working for pay it was either at night or during the day when young children were napping. By contrast, fathers maintained fixed hours for their telework. Some couples reported that males were being paid at a higher rate than females, even when both were upper middle class socioeconomic professionals. In no instances did they refer to the nonremunerated work that women take on daily.
While the women who participated in the study emphasized the stress involved in combining telework with childcare, men described telework as presenting them with an opportunity to be closer to their children and spend time at home with their family. The interviews further revealed that men perceived, with a degree of surprise, what happens when the domestic routine and the presence of children during telework hours collide—the stories, the laughs, tears and toys in the middle of the workday.
Recent studies about fatherhood have revealed that men are increasingly willing to participate in the care and education of their children. Still, the road to equity between women and men in sharing home labor has been much bumpier than the one women have traveled to reach the paid labor market. And men’s journey to sharing domestic work and childcare continues to be on a meandering single-lane road, not the superhighway women hope for. The fact that male participants in the study were surprised by the results demonstrates how far men are from both understanding domestic routines and taking charge of caretaking.
When it comes to dividing responsibilities in the midst of a pandemic, telework has exposed a new dimension in gender inequalities. There is a long road to travel before we get closer to a more egalitarian distribution of childcare. Let’s hope that one of the bright spots of home confinement leads to a recognition that caring for their children is also the responsibility of fathers.
Norma E. Silva Sá is a Brazilian psychologist in a master’s program in gender studies and psychosocial intervention at Central University of Chile in Santiago. Her thesis explores health and masculinities through a project at Alberto Hurtado University in Santiago. Translated from the Spanish by Bert Fernández, boricua and retired pediatrician.