In recent days, economists Matthias Doepke and Jane Olmstead-Rumsey from Northwestern University, Titan Alon from the University of California San Diego and Michèle Tertilt from the University of Mannheim have presented a hypothesis that the coronavirus pandemic could significantly accelerate social change related to gender equality.
Coronavirus has managed to do what neither politicians nor feminists have been able to achieve: for the first time in history, millions of fathers around the globe are sitting at home and having to look after their children. Economists are of the opinion that for some families the new distribution of responsibilities will stay for longer. The reason for this will also be the post-pandemic labour market which, apart from a sudden increase in the unemployment rate, will bring about changes in the way we perform our duties.
First of all, today the health service, grocery stores and pharmacies are working double their regular workload. The crisis is resulting in increased bureaucracy and so public officers and post office employees have their hands full with work. Social assistance offices and employment agencies are in a state of preparation for what is to come. All of these places employ mainly women.
Thousands of households are experiencing a forced role reversal in which the father stays home with the children and the mother earns a living.
The second scenario is related to the spread of remote work. Experts estimate that after the epidemic ends, many companies will maintain this model. And when our work moves home, we will have to redefine the division of responsibilities whether that is childcare or who does the grocery shopping on a particular day.
In theory, the new arrangement should not be challenging for Polish families. Vocally at least we are highly supportive of equality. For example, in March, the Responsible Business Forum reported that as many as 88% of Polish women and 75% of Polish men are of the opinion that fathers should be more involved in childcare.
We want to live as partners, but are we able to?
As Professor Harriet Bradley, a sociologist who has devoted her scientific life to researching women’s employment issues, wrote, even couples who strongly support equality become infected with the “virus of patriarchy” after a baby is born. As if by magic, a child introduces a conservative order in their lives. The mother stays home with the baby and the father takes on the responsibility to provide for the family. The statistics provided by ZUS (Polish Social Insurance Institution) indicate that they perfectly adjust to their new roles.
In 2019, Polish men accounted for only 1% of those taking parental leave. This is a worldwide trend. European statistics on the participation of fathers in childcare were so poor that Brussels politicians adopted a directive under which they were only entitled to two months of parental leave. Unused leave is forfeited. The new law will be effective from mid-2022.
Let’s stop saying “let me handle it myself”
Will the confinement of millions of Polish men to their homes as a result of the coronavirus epidemic cause the changes anticipated by the team of economists?
In their article, they refer to research results which show that in Spain and Germany, fathers who have taken parental leave later show an increased involvement in childcare.
“During the current crisis, many millions of men are on extended compulsory paternity leave, and during that time a significant proportion will be the sole guardians of their children,” the economists write. “Therefore, (...) there is a strong likelihood that in the near future we will see a significant impact of this forced experiment on social norms and ultimately on gender equality.”
According to Dorota Peretiatkowicz, a researcher, sociologist and partner at IRCenter, a lot depends on women’s attitude. “Some of us, even if there is an opportunity, will not let men take over our duties. I am talking about the infamous ‘let me take care of it myself’.” If we dream of a revolution, let’s make room for it and take away the constant need for control. Let men do housework their own way, the way they can. Without constant assistance and hints from us.
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