A few days ago a colleague, a new mother, called me. She had returned to work just a few months prior to the Corona Virus outbreak. I remember many conversations we had in the office, talking about how, even though she missed her baby, coming to work gave her a few hours to herself which she really needed.
Now, a month into the island wide curfew, she was telling me how grateful she was for the delivery services slowly becoming available, because being at home has meant she was constantly in the kitchen. This struck me, because I knew that while trying to feed and take care of a new-born baby and a family of five, she was also joining all the zoom meetings, replying countless emails, and just adjusting to this new reality of working virtually.
Care work, from time immemorial has always been gendered. Economies have run on the unacknowledged and largely, unpaid labour of women. Things you wouldn’t think of, such as cooking a meal, to spending time with your children, all contribute to the efficient functioning of both society and the economy. Without exception across the world, women carry out three quarters of this work.
Why does this happen? We can go back to entrenched gendered social norms which view care work as a female prerogative. Despite the world moving towards a more egalitarian society in theory, in reality women now not only have to meet expectations of their domestic and reproductive roles, but also their professional ones.
Around the world, women spend two to ten times more time on unpaid care work than men. This is largely because we have been socialized to think it is a woman’s duty to take care of the home and family, and that care is somehow intrinsically a female quality.
Since nearly a month ago, we were asked to stay indoors. While the end might be in sight for Sri Lanka, this month for many of us was a stark reminder of how much labour goes into maintain our domestic lives, and how much of this labour is gendered.
The problem with this unequal distribution of caring responsibilities is that it impacts labour force participation, wages, job quality, and more importantly the overall wellbeing of individuals. I will not pretend to act like I felt the full brunt of this curfew, and yet , even in these relatively rarefied circumstance I see inequities between how I spent my time, taking zoom calls whilst trying not to burn the chicken, and my partner, whose sole focus was working from home.
They say, never let a good crisis go to waste. Tackling entrenched gender norms and stereotypes is a first step in redistributing responsibilities for care and housework between women and men. When we emerge from this crisis there will be a new normal. Hopefully our experiences with the current crisis will help us come out with a better recognition and appreciation for all the unpaid and underpaid work that women do, and a better understanding of just how essential this work is. This can be our chance to, while recognizing the multiplicity in the role women play, to correct the inherently gendered way society views care work.