The Carmelis of Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk have always considered themselves an egalitarian family in which both parents raise the children and do the housework. But Chen, 49, and Mor, 42 acknowledge that Chen’s salary, which is significantly higher than Mor’s, dictates the division of labor at home – most of the burden falls on her.
Well, it changed somewhat when the coronavirus crisis erupted.
Mor and Chen haven’t been stung financially by the crisis; both are considered essential workers – Chen as an engineer and Mor at a factory on the kibbutz. But the children – Avigail,12, Tamari, 10, Dan, 6, and Yishai, 3 – stayed at home, where the Carmelis had to change their work routine. Chen would go to work very early in the morning and come back to be with the kids for their breakfast and remote learning, letting Mor go to work.
A few hours later, she would come back to spell Chen at home and he would return to the office. For the first time in his life he spent time alone with his four young children for many hours at a time, hours during which the sun still shone and he was hopping back and forth between them, work phone calls and emails.
“Today I’m thankful to the coronavirus for making me a better father, more there emotionally for my children,” he says.
Even now that the kids are back at school and the house has sort of returned to its pre-pandemic routine, the couple believe that the change in their family dynamic has staying power. Mor notes that she still does most of the housework but feels that the family is stronger.
“Our eldest daughter also realized that it was hard for us and started to take responsibility for her younger siblings and to show amazing independence,” Mor says. “I rely on Chen more and more and on the children, and they take a greater part in the chores. I let go because I have someone to rely on.”
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To a large extent, the Carmeli family’s story reflects the conclusions of a new study at the University of Haifa that examined the effects of the lockdown on male-female inequality at home. For March and April, the researchers looked at the increasing housework and childcare, the restrictions on leaving home and the shrinking of the labor market.
The study was conducted by the sociology department’s Meir Yaish, Tali Kristal and Efrat Herzberg-Druker; the researchers quizzed a representative sample of 940 sets of working parents with children under 18. The findings provide both points of light and causes for concern regarding gender equality in Israeli families.
In families where both parents earn about the same or where the woman earns more, the April increase in the fathers' weekly number of childcare hours climbed to 6.4 and 5.2, respectively. The fathers’ additional childcare duty profoundly affected their relationships with their children.
As Chen describes it: “I would take part in meals and baths, but staying with the children alone when Mor goes out with friends for a few hours was a major event for me, especially emotionally. The grandparents would come to help.” Now with the lockdown over, he says, “it’s no longer a big deal for me.”
The figures reflect a significant increase in the hours men take care of their children – in 75 percent of the households, the men spent more hours with the kids. But the women did much more both in caring for the children and in household tasks such as cleaning, laundry, cooking and shopping.
In the end, the time women spend relative to men on household tasks is the same even after the crisis: 60 percent.
The findings reflect big differences between the division of labor in families where women earn less than men and in families where the incomes are equal. In families where the women earn less, they increased their housekeeping during the lockdown by 9.3 hours per week – 91 percent of families’ total increase in this category.
Also, they increased their number of childcare hours by 8.5 per week – 65 percent of the total number of hours added in April. But in families where the woman’s and man’s incomes were about the same, the men ramped up their childcare more than the women did – 55 percent of the total increase in hours.
Toil and trouble
The study found that the men invested a lot in their children during the lockdown period, but at the expense of household chores. On average, for every 20 minutes the men decreased their time on household chores, the woman upped this number by two hours.
In families where both parents earned similar salaries and the fathers invested more time in their children than other fathers, they also decreased by nearly four hours per week their time spent on housekeeping.
According to Prof. Yaish, who headed the study, during a serious crisis when a family’s earning power is stung, the woman puts her shoulders to the wheel.
“Women took upon themselves more tasks and responsibility for the family’s economic well-being, and they also greatly increased, more than the men did, the hours they spent on household tasks,” he says.
“The men, too, changed their patterns of behavior in the wake of the coronavirus crisis but they did this in a softer way, so that ‘in return’ for more hours spent caring for the children, they considerably decreased their number of hours on household chores.”
The number of hours of work without pay at home is considered a main reason for gender-pay differentials in Israel and worldwide. In 2018 a woman’s average monthly pay stood at 68.4 percent of a man’s pay but no one compensated her for her hours caring for her children and doing housework – three times more hours than a man, according to UN data. According to the International Labor Organization, on any given day around the world 16.4 billion hours are devoted to unpaid caregiving work, estimated at about 9 percent of global gross domestic product. Women put in about 75 percent of those hours.
“There’s an approach that tries to explain the inequality in the division of labor in the family by time limitations – men work more than women outside the home, so women take on a larger share of the housework,” Herzberger-Druker says.
“If this approach were indeed correct, we could expect that in times when many people are at home, the tasks and the time invested in them would be shared in a more egalitarian way. We do see that in certain cases the men put their shoulders to the wheel. They increase the time they spend on childcare, even though most of the burden still falls on the women.
“Still, in most families the men work more and earn more. These are the majority of families in Israel, and among these families we don’t see that the men changed anything in their work patterns in the home – even though there’s a tremendous need.”
Back to 1990?
According to the study, in about one-quarter of families, the men didn’t do childcare or housekeeping at all, while the women also held down part-time jobs. Also, only 58 percent of families with two wage earners in March remained in the same situation in April.
Twenty-nine percent of the families where the father was the sole wage earner in March were left without any income at all in April. For families where the mother was the sole wage earner in March, this number was 38 percent in April.
Similarly, in single-parent families, 29 percent of the fathers and 40 percent of the mothers lost their source of income in April. “The women absorbed most of the employment shock,” the researches wrote.
According to Herzberg-Druker, the fact that the employment of women is affected more than that of men is liable to widen the gaps at home.
“If the damage to women is more profound and long-lasting than the damage to men, we’ll return to the model of the woman as secondary provider and the man as primary provider,” she says. “And then we can expect less and less involvement by men in housekeeping and childcare. This could actually be a return to the patterns of 30 years ago.”
This forecast is joined by another worrisome finding indicating an increase in the percentage of households preserving outdated gender patterns – the man works at a full-time job and the woman at a part-time job. According to the study, in March, the proportion of such households was 23 percent – which increased to 34 percent in April.
In the Carmeli family, too, Chen spent more time at his job than Mor did during the lockdown. “Since Chen earns a lot more than I do, it’s clear to us that for the benefit of the household he has to work more,” Mor says.
Chen adds: “If the situation were the other way around, I would be at home more. This is an economic reality that dictates behavior. During the crisis, the flexibility and considerations at my job let me and Mor both keep our jobs and look after the children.”
The crisis also brought many women out into the labor market. For families where there was a single provider in March, financial problems pushed about 12 percent of the women into jobs in April, the study found. Among men in families where the woman was the sole provider, the increase was only 5 percent.
The share of families where the women work full-time while the men work part-time also increased significantly – by 47 percent – in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. The percentage of families where the men work full-time and the women part-time actually decreased, by 2 percent.
Herzberg-Druker believes that to reduce gender inequality at home and on the job, the government must intervene. “Studies find, for example, that when it’s obligatory for men to take part of the childbirth leave, they’re involved in their children’s lives from an early age and the division of labor in the household is more egalitarian,” she says.
“A policy that encourages combining work, leisure and family will lead to everyone being able to work fewer hours in the labor market and invest more time in an egalitarian way in caring for the children and in household tasks.
“We’re seeing glimmerings of that in the private market; for example, Facebook’s announcement of childbirth leave for fathers as well. But as I said, these are first glimmerings and most people don’t work at those companies, so we’re not yet seeing the desired change in this respect in Israel.”