Can We “Undo Gender” During the Pandemic?

What if women acted more like men, and men acted more like women…?

Posted Dec 16, 2020

Inaki del Olmo/Unsplash
Source: Inaki del Olmo/Unsplash

COVID-19 brought some stark changes in our house. Since he began working from home, my husband started pitching in more. After the first three weeks of lockdown, I said, “You’ve done more housework and laundry than you probably did in your whole life.” Amazingly, he agreed.

Our life is probably not so different from many heterosexual couples that way, but we have no young children to supervise. How would he react if he had to help with online classes or keeping a hybrid version of school straight? As I recall, he didn’t change many diapers or prepare endless grilled cheese sandwiches years ago.

If men acted more like women…

We, like so many other families, have the opportunity to “undo gender” as Francine Deutsch and Ruth Gaunt refer to what have been steadfast gender roles for men and women. In their book Gender Equality at Home, they write, “Masculinity and femininity become irrelevant when women act more like men and men more like women.”

This isn’t a new hope in the U.S. or elsewhere around the world. It’s been espoused for years, including by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation,” she said in a 2001 interview with ABC News before a lecture at Columbia University. 

In their book on gender equality, Deutsch and Gaunt found that an equal partnership can be achieved. They detail how 25 couples in 22 countries resist gender stereotypes.

“By their everyday decisions and actions, the equal sharers routinely defy social norms and resist conventional motherhood and fatherhood to create truly revolutionary families,” the researchers note. “Despite some flaws, they have dramatically transformed family life.”

The couples communicate openly about expectations, with both men and women taking primary responsibility for parenting, childcare, and housework. A common source of tension women reported, in some instances, was men not taking the initiative to handle tasks at home. Equal sharers prioritized being on the same page about what needed to be done and handling those responsibilities, instead of one partner having to regularly ask the other for help. Deutsch and Gaunt admit, “Sometimes when men share the work, they feel that they deserve special credit.”

Justice Ginsburg’s views about the role of men at home reflected her expectations for her family and were informed, in part, by her work with the prime minister of Sweden, Olof Palme. As Joan C. Williams of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California told NPR: Palme said, “You're never going to liberate women from their roles at home if you don't liberate men to assume responsibilities at home.”

The pandemic, for its part, has necessitated that many parents work from home. Mothers and fathers of school-aged kids have, for one thing, had to adjust to helping children with e-learning. But whether they share such responsibilities in an equitable way is another story.

Research that evaluated changes in parents’ work hours to account for increased caregiving responsibilities found women to be disproportionately affected. When schools and daycares closed because of COVID-19, mothers with young children reduced their work hours at four to five times the rate as fathers, according to a recent study published in the journal Gender, Work & Organization.

Will pandemic-generated changes last?

The pandemic has led some, if not most, couples to revise their division of labor at home. And even after the threat from COVID-19 passes, those shifts could continue.

“Beyond the immediate crisis, there are opposing forces which may ultimately promote gender equality in the labor market,” Titan Alon and fellow researchers note in a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research on how COVID-19 is impacting gender equality. “First, businesses are rapidly adopting flexible work arrangements, which are likely to persist. Second, there are also many fathers who now have to take primary responsibility for childcare, which may erode social norms that currently lead to a lopsided distribution of the division of labor in housework and childcare.”

As Matthias Doepke, an economist at Northwestern University and a co-author of the research, told The New York Times, the researchers found that “men who can work from home do about 50 percent more childcare than men who cannot. This may ultimately promote gender equality in the labor market.”

Companies like Salesforce, PepsiCo, Uber, and Pinterest recently signed a pledge to offer more flexibility and resources for working parents, and many businesses have softened stances on telecommuting. Staggered shifts and less business travel may also become more common.

“The effects of this shock”—both good and bad—“are likely to outlast the actual epidemic,” Mr. Doepke told The New York Times.

Whether with flexibility and changing modern norms, men and women will share equally in work at home, and whether the positive changes will last, remains to be seen. Such a shift requires getting past stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity to “undo gender,” as Deutsch and Gaunt emphasize.

They point out domestic labor research makes it clear that women still take on more than their share of housework and childcare. “Even when progress is reported, the progress is slow and doesn’t convince us that we will eventually reach equality,” Deutsch and Gaunt write. But that doesn’t mean this entrenched disparity should be accepted as the inevitable reality of home life. Rather, “In this context,” they add, “it seems important to shout that equality is possible.”

Copyright @2020 Susan Newman


Alon, Titan., Matthias Doepke, Jane Olmstead-Rumsey and Michele Tertilt. (2020) “The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality.” National Bureau of Economic Research: April.

Cohen, Patricia and Tiffany Hsu. (2020) “Pandemic Could Scar a Generation of Working Mothers.” New York Times, June 3.

Collins, Caitlyn, Liana Christin Landivar, Leah Ruppanner and William J. Scarborough (2020) “COVID‐19 and the gender gap in work hours.” Gender, Work & Organization: July 2.

Deutsch, Francine M. and Ruth A. Gaunt. (2020) Equality at Home: How 25 Couples Around the World Share Household and Childcare. Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press.  

Invest in Parents. “Sign the Pledge.” 

Sherr, Lynn. (2001) “A Conversation with Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgThe Record: Winter, Vol. 56, No.1, p. 9

Williams, Joan C. (2019) “Ruth Bader Ginsburg, An Inspiration to Working Mothers.” National Public Radio: Sept. 19.