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How the pandemic has remade women ‘the Angel in the House’

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, has a year of lockdowns shown us that equality in the home is still a fantasy?

Artillery Row

Whether working from home, furloughed or unemployed, we’ve all heard stories about women reverting to a housewifely stereotype that we all thought had been left behind generations ago. Unfortunately, the stories are true.

In one of the most detailed pieces of public opinion research conducted on the state of the nation’s mental health we discovered that the endless drudgery of cooking, cleaning and housework has fallen overwhelmingly to women. Even when women are working full time, 54 per cent said they did more home-schooling compared with 7 per cent saying their partner did more.

Although women are increasingly overtaking men in graduate-level jobs and competing more equally in the world of work, it has taken a global health pandemic to reveal that in the domestic realm, nothing much has changed.

Over the past year, 60 per cent of women have done more cooking than their partners (compared with 23 per cent of men), 63 per cent clean up around the house more (compared with 15 per cent of men) but 65 per cent of men do DIY and fix things around the house (only 13 per cent of women do).

And when we spoke to women in focus groups, especially those with school-aged children, most were in the same situation as their partners. Even while both were working full-time from home, both furloughed or both unemployed, the women, even though they didn’t like it, accepted that the housework and homecare should fall to them.

Asked if fathers were pulling their weight around the house, one woman who was working full-time from home while trying to home-school her five-year-old said, “Not at our end, but that’s because it’s not a strength of his. He’s more practical.”

Another woman, again very stoic, said, “Women seem to have taken on the teaching role. It’s just fallen naturally to them. It’s just how it is.”

But scratch the surface, and women are not happy about it. A woman who had lost her freelance job shortly before her husband lost his said, “My husband is drumming up business and the kids are home-schooling, so I understand why it’s fallen to me but I still resent it.”

One woman told the story of a friend of hers, a hospital consultant who worked in critical care at the height of the pandemic while her two university-aged children were at home. While she was dealing with dying patients (and the children were fully aware of where she was) she received a text message asking what was for lunch.

This was echoed across the groups of mothers with children at home: “I feel like I’m the catering maid. Everyone has lunch at different times. It’s like lunch lasts for three hours and I’m just cleaning, making food, buying food, cleaning up after people and it’s sending me bananas! I’m cleaning, cooking, moaning, nagging, school-working, nagging, cleaning.” She really did not like this division of labour and yet, like the others, did not question why it had fallen to her.

These women felt trapped on a hamster wheel, available to their families at all times of day or night, looking after everyone in house, not knowing when this was ever going to end and crying a lot. “I cry at least once a week. I feel like I soak everyone’s emotions like a sponge. So, if someone’s unhappy or raging, I just soak it in,” said one London mother.

But what was so surprising was how understanding women were of their male partners sitting in the study “drumming up business” – and how guilty they felt if they moaned about it. One woman said that she would be overcome with resentment, then feel guilty about it, burst into tears and then feel terrible at having been so self-indulgent.

Our great hopes of women’s equality at work are not matched by equality in the home

It’s no surprise that women are reporting much higher levels of anxiety, having no motivation, feeling tearful or down, having low self-esteem. Women are always more open with such admissions, but the numbers are huge. Nearly half of women (49 per cent) say they have felt more anxious in the last year. Only 32 per cent of men do. In fact, in a long list of mental health issues, the only answer where men score far more highly than women is: “None of the above”. That is not to say that men are feeling fine – many are not – but that women are facing a real mental health crisis as we emerge from lockdown, not helped by the fact that they have been forced back into a gender role familiar to our great-grandmothers.

What our research has revealed is that our great hopes of women’s equality at work are not matched by equality in the home. While society considers housework and childcare to be a woman’s domain, they will continue to double shift. This research has lifted the lid. As we come out of lockdown, let’s not just screw the top back on.

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