Mothers Bear Cost of Remote Work

Remote work requires parents juggle their profession, their childrens’ school, extracurricular activities and household chores. According to a new study led by Penn sociologists, the extra burdens have fallen disproportionately on mothers.

The research, shared in the April issue of the journal “Gender and Society,” investigated how shifts in work and school that arose due to the pandemic triggered changes in the division of labor in families. Using data on two-parent households from a nationwide survey conducted in April 2020, the researchers found that gender disparities in unpaid labor were most apparent when a mother was the only parent working from home, or when neither parent was able to work remotely.

As the pandemic continued, the toll on women became harder to ignore. Hundreds of thousands of women lost their jobs or dropped out of the workforce to meet new demands at home.

Yet remote work also seemed to open the possibility of greater equity between the genders, as two parents would be at home and accessible.

To tease out the effects of a shift to remote work on domestic labor during the pandemic, Jacobs, Penn doctoral student Allison Dunatchik, and colleagues turned to data from a New York Times survey, conducted by marketing research firm Morning Consult. Of 2,200 respondents, 478 were partnered parents, and 151 were single parents.

While the gender of each survey respondent’s partner was unknown, the gender of the respondents played a key role in how the pandemic affected their domestic responsibilities, which, with children at home, increased across the board.

Families where both partners worked remotely had the most egalitarian split of household and parenting duties, the researchers found. Both mothers and fathers reported similar increases in housework and childcare responsibilities, as well as in the pressure they felt about managing their children’s schooling.

However, even this best-case-scenario showed gender disparity, as pre-pandemic disparities endured. Mothers working remotely were more than twice as likely as fathers to report being the partner primarily responsible for housework and childcare.

When only one parent worked remotely and the other worked out of the home, the gender disparity in domestic labor was far more evident. Mothers who worked from home absorbed the extra labor, while fathers who worked remotely reported less uptake of the extra housework and childcare.

When neither partner was able to work remotely, again mothers bore the brunt of the extra labor. In these couples, mothers were twice as likely as fathers to report increases in time spent on household labor and were seven times as likely to say they were the person responsible for most of the children’s home learning.

While the survey data had only 151 responses from single parents, most of which were women, the researchers found that single mothers were spending more time on domestic labor, though they were less likely to have increased their time spent on housework during the pandemic than partnered mothers.