The disproportionate amount of time women spend on unpaid work relative to men is a key driver of gender inequalities in the labour market, with negative implications for women’s participation, employment quality, earnings, and retirement wealth. Early studies during the COVID19 pandemic in Australia identified worsening outcomes in gender inequality. However, the impact of COVID19 on gender inequality is not clearcut with mixed results depending on whether the outcome is unpaid domestic or care work. Our aim is to put the pandemic in perspective by observing trends in gender inequality in unpaid work over the short and long-term in Australia.
We use the concept of time – historical, biographical and transitional – as a framework for the analyses. Using HILDA data we first assess the impact of historical time, from 2001-2021, and biographical time (age), on gender inequalities in unpaid domestic and care. We then examine the impact of transitional time: the transition to parenthood, experienced as an individual life course event and the record-breaking COVID19 lockdown in Melbourne in the second half of 2020, experienced as an historical event. Our results show wide and continuing gender gaps in time on unpaid work and care. While there is some evidence of a narrowing of the gap over historical time, this is largely because women spend less time on unpaid work in more recent years. Analyses of changes over biographical time reveals large life course differences in time on unpaid work and care with entry to parenthood a major turning point. Finally we show that although COVID19 lockdowns widened the gender gap, this effect has not lasted beyond the pandemic.
We conclude that parenthood is a far greater producer and exacerbator of gender inequalities in unpaid work and care than COVID19 lockdowns. Policies should focus on ways to mitigate the effects of parenthood on women’s time on unpaid work and care and to support men to take a more active and engaged role in these activities. Without change in divisions of unpaid domestic and care work, our capacity to move towards gender equality in public domains is very limited.