The living situation brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, where many couples are working from home, is bringing to light the greater amount of caring and household work women carry out at home.

Two university professors agree that this situation presents an opportunity for couples to discuss their roles and achieve a better balance.

“One of the things that working from home is bringing to the fore is the greater amount of work women carry out both in terms of caring for others and doing other chores. This is because couples end up observing each other’s work schedules,” says Angela Abela, a professor in the Department of Family Studies within the University of Malta’s Faculty for Social Wellbeing.

Brenda Murphy, a professor in gender studies within the same faculty adds: “This lockdown situation put a magnifying glass on what we already knew. Now this is more visible and more women are speaking up about it.”

The Gender Equality Index 2019: Work-Life Balance, issued by the European Institute of Gender Equality last October, showed that women across most EU countries still take on the bulk of the responsibilities at home.

The report showed women in Malta are much more involved in daily care activities (85%) than men (58%). Around 81% of women do cooking and housework every day for at least one hour, compared to 37% of men.

Abela notes that, according to reports issued by the European Commission and the UN, women dedicate around three times as much time as men to unpaid domestic and care work.

In most households it is the woman who is sacrificing her career

“In the context of COVID-19, extra tasks have been added on, including childminding and homeschooling, planning three meals a day as well as looking after older parents who are self-isolating. This is all happening while many young mums are working from home, very often on a full-time basis,” says Abela.

“At the moment, many young mums are also missing the support from their older parents who are now prohibited from spending time with their grandchildren.”

All this adds stress, so the importance of equal division of tasks between the couple becomes even more pertinent.

Time to start a conversation

Over the past weeks many women in Malta have voiced frustration on social media.

One woman wrote: “This situation again makes us realise we are nowhere near equal opportunity when it comes to gender... I can guarantee that in most households it is the woman who is sacrificing her career to be able to deal with multiple roles.”

In some households the division of labour is more balanced. One couple said the man took care of the cooking and shopping while the woman handled the children. Another couple said they shared chores and worked in shifts to ensure none of them was overwhelmed and had to juggle work and childcare simultaneously. A mother-of-two said her husband spent most of the day in his home office. When he emerged in the evening, he helped with the children. This seems to be a common pattern.

Marceline Naudi, head of the Gender and Sexualities Department within the Faculty for Social Wellbeing, said that while there was no way of knowing what was happening in every household, she has her suspicions based on what was already well known and documented. 

“I suspect that in many cases the man’s job – his career – is seen as more important than the woman’s and that the man is allowed to work while the woman juggles the children, work and cooking,” she said.

“This would be a good opportunity for fathers to take on more care responsibilities.”

For some couples this is happening: “I think COVID-19 helped, to be honest. Before he was hardly here, so it was all on me,” one woman said.

But is this the right time to stand up and do something about it?

Murphy says: “When we try to unsettle, address or correct a balance, we unsettle it and create an imbalance. And this may not be what we need at a time when anxiety levels are high in homes. People should be having conversations with partners. They should take this as an opportunity to sit down and talk about roles and responsibilities to achieve a better balance.”

Abela – a clinical psychologist and family therapist – agrees, saying it is important that allocated tasks are followed through.

When this becomes impossible, the partner responsible for the task should communicate to the other partner and tasks renegotiated. This prevents resentment.

Murphy also talks about the importance of letting go: “You don’t have to clean the house or homeschool. You don’t have to be Superwoman. Hang up that suit because it’s not feasible. It’s not good for your well-being.”

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