Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021 | 2 a.m.
It’s been a tough 11 months for mothers. For about a millisecond after the onset of the pandemic, I hoped that remote work would cause fathers to finally see all of the myriad household tasks mothers do every day and begin doing their fair share. It didn’t happen.
Instead of curing the fairness gap, we got the Great COVID Cop-out.
Nearly 80% of mothers have been primarily responsible for doing the housework since March, while 66% are chiefly responsible for the child care among partnered parents. When you look at home schooling, parents’ contributions are even more skewed. Three-quarters of mothers reported spending more time on it; only one-third of dads do. (All numbers are from a new study by sociologists Allison Dunatchik, Kathleen Gerson, Jennifer Glass, Jerry Jacobs and Haley Stritzel in Gender & Society, forthcoming in April.)
“He’s pretty strict with keeping his office time pristine,” one mother told a Vanity Fair reporter writing about the fairness gap last year. Her husband was eating breakfast with the family and then disappearing until she fed him lunch.
It’s often said that mothers’ greater availability in general explains the gap. But the Gender & Society pandemic data reveal a different reality: When mothers are the only parent working remotely, they do more child care than usual; when fathers are the only parent working remotely, they don’t.
The fairness gap is deeply ingrained in our assumptions about family life, a fact that is particularly clear in the stories we tell. Three common themes show up in even the most sophisticated Hollywood productions.
The first theme, Magic Disappearing Children, appears in the TV show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” an otherwise-feminist saga about a separated and then divorced mother of two children making her way as a comedian in the late 1950s. At first, she and the kids move in with her parents, who have a housekeeper — automatic help at home. By Season 3, there’d been a few references to her ex taking charge, but mostly the kids just magically disappear. Convenient, that. I could have used a pair of collapsible children myself.
The second theme is the Prodigal Dad. Consider “Bosch,” the TV version of Michael Connelly’s fictional LAPD detective. Mr. Old-School Tough Guy has a daughter, but he’s been gone from her life until her teens. She doesn’t hold it against him, though. In fact, she prefers him to her mom, and neither mother nor daughter appears to have the tiniest iota of resentment about his absence from the everyday responsibilities of bringing up baby.
The third theme is Mom Doesn’t Mind. In “Blackish,” Dre Johnson decides he doesn’t do enough around the house, and we are invited to be amused at the antics and improbability of a man actually trying to do his fair share. But he is inept, alas, and the episode ends with everybody recognizing that really, Mom does it better. “I actually miss doing all the little things,” says his wife. As in, I prefer doing dishes while you play video games?
The fairness gap isn’t “just the way it is.” It’s about economics, and who benefits from a system we tolerate.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 140,000 jobs lost in December, but the news was even more grim for women: They lost 156,000 jobs, men gained 16,000. As unemployment increased throughout 2020, women lost a million more jobs than men did.
Each year someone is out of work means a sacrifice of more than three times their annual salary in lifetime income, according to calculations by the Center for American Progress. Since the pandemic, multiple studies have shown that women’s careers, even if they have been able to stay in the workforce, have been adversely affected: Four to five times more partnered mothers than fathers of young children have reduced their work hours during the pandemic. Over a third of fathers but less than 9% of mothers have been promoted during the pandemic. Male professors’ research publication productivity has skyrocketed during the pandemic, while women’s has fallen sharply.
The fairness gap starts when we define the ideal worker as someone who is always available for work. Men feel entitled to perform as ideal workers; women don’t. Wives told one researcher that they made the decision themselves to leave their careers and work, with no pressure from their husbands. “But,” added one woman tellingly, “he’s not there to pick up any load.”
Single mothers suffer most because of the “always available for work” ideal. The pandemic has forced single mothers into terrible choices, including leaving small children home alone to return to unsafe workplaces so they can put food on the table. At the WorkLife Law Center at UC Hastings, we run a COVID Helpline for workers and we hear from struggling single mothers a lot. And, of course, anything that has a particularly harsh effect on single mothers has a singularly harsh effect by race and class: Two-thirds of parents in low-income families are single parents, and a disproportionate share of single parents are Black mothers.
It’s difficult to talk about the fairness gap without sounding like you’re criticizing some women for the choices they’ve made. Criticism isn’t the point. I just want all women — and all men — to have better choices.
We can begin by acknowledging what’s happening to mothers — and much less so to fathers — during the pandemic and beyond it. And we can change the stories we tell. Just as GLAAD worked to call out casual homophobia in Hollywood (and offer producers new scripts), we can organize to end casual sexism as well.
Finding less-outdated themes for our stories is not impossible. In “Cobra Kai,” the father’s pre-COVID cop-out resulted in strained relationships with his kids. How hard was that?
Joan Williams is a professor and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings Law. She is the author of “Bias Interrupted,” scheduled for publication in 2022. This column originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.