As schools and day-care centres closed across Germany to minimize the spread of COVID-19, families were forced to care for children spending much more time at home. And while Germany has seen increasing trends towards gender equality in caring for the family and in the workplace, a shock such as a pandemic brings unpredecented challenges into the mix. Some have hypothesized that the coronavirus crises has led to a “retraditionalisation” of gender-role behaviours, with women bearing the brunt of additional childcare burdens. Michaela Kreyenfeld (Hertie School) and Sabine Zinn (Deutsches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung (DIW) and Humboldt Universität zu Berlin) used data from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) to test this hypothesis and examine how time spent on childcare changed for mothers and fathers respectively from 2019 to spring 2020.
The authors considered not only gender, but also education level and employment situation in their analyses. Data from the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) has indicated that low-income males were the most likely to be put on “short-time work” (i.e. reduced working hours) during the first lockdown. By contrast, men with higher incomes and higher levels of education tended to have jobs that enabled them to work from home, allowing working hours to remain unaffected. As such, the authors hypothesize that highly educated men were less likely than their lower-educated counterparts to increase time spent with their children. In addition, the authors note, women may have been less likely to face “short-time work” as they dominate more “system-relevant” occupations such as retail and health. As such, they estimate a smaller increase in childcare time among women than among men.
Results from the study indicate that the COVID-19 lockdown caused both men and women to spend much more time caring for children. As before the pandemic, women spent more time on childcare on average than men, 9.6 hours compared to 5.3 hours. However, while women’s childcare time increased more in absolute terms, men’s childcare time increased more dramatically in relative terms, an 89 per cent increase among the fathers compared to 43 per cent among the mothers. Fathers with low and medium levels of education were more likely to report increased time with their children, compared to highly educated parents – particularly fathers – who were least likely to report increased childcare time. Furthermore, those already heavily engaged in caring for their children had less capacity to expand during the pandemic, meaning that men had more room for increase.
Kreyenfeld and Zinn’s results substantiate many of their conjectures, but provide strong evidence against the “retraditionalisation” hypothesis. Though women still spent more time engaged in childcare, men demonstrated a sharper increase in time spent with their children. Furthermore, though prior investigations have found highly educated fathers to be more involved in taking care of their children, the sharp increase in engagement among low- and medium-educated fathers demonstrates how an external shock may challenge an existing picture. Overall, the study therefore points in positive directions in terms of gender equality in childcare.