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Unpaid Work During COVID-19: Caregiving Without Compensation

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

Primary Author: Hannah Wellings, BSc (Hons), MSc (c) Contributing Authors: Roma Dhamanaskar, BSc (Hons), MBE (Master of Bioethics) & Kayla Benjamin, BMSc (Hons), MSc (c). Illustrations by Alex McPhail, BA (Hons)

Hi, my name is Han (she/they) and I am the author of this piece. This work was written on the traditional, unceded lands of the Haudenosaunee, Netural, Anishinaabe, Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and Métis Peoples. The treaties of the land that I currently live on include the Haldimand Treaty and Between the Lakes Treaty No. 3. I am both a white settler of Scottish, English and German descent as well as a Mohawk person from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. I want to acknowledge that my position on my work in general, and specifically what I have written about the gendered impacts of COVID-19, is shaped by those identities and the associated privileges that I have. I do not intend to speak on behalf of any of these groups as I can only know and comment on my lived experiences. Further, my access to post-secondary education and the availability to volunteer my time is important to acknowledge. My goal of my written contributions is to amplify experiences and voices that are not afforded this luxury because of the systemic and structural barriers created through colonialism that are maintained in the broader North American society. Leveraging my access to education in order to increase the availability of knowledge and education about historically erased and oppressed populations is my primary goal. Regarding the coronavirus pandemic and care work, I was personally motivated for this piece as I have personally engaged in an increase in paid and unpaid labour as a caregiver during this time. I am committed to ongoing learning and my positionality in the academic and social systems provided more reason to write and investigate this often-invisible burden of expectation that women and gender diverse folks experience. I am open to feedback as learning is non-linear and consultation and collaboration are necessary to create a safe space and meaningful action.

In this post we will discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the unpaid and paid care work provided by women at home and in the workforce, addressing topics such as:


It is important to acknowledge that most of the research completed regarding the gendered impacts of COVID-19 and care focuses primarily on cisgender men and women and heterosexual couples. This piece does not encapsulate the COVID-19 experiences of gender diverse folks and their partnerships. Further, much of the care work and needs are related to couples who have children under the age of 18. At the outset of the pandemic, COVID-19 was regarded as the ‘great equalizer’, meaning the virus (SARS-CoV-2) and following disease had the same risk of infection, illness and death for individuals regardless of their position in society. We acknowledge that this is not a lived reality and is not reflected in the data. It is understood that systemic barriers and how they intersect with an individual’s position in society affect how folks experience the primary (physical health) and secondary (economic and social) impacts of the viral spread, COVID-19 disease and government responses.

COVID-19 and the resurgence of traditional gender roles

One of the more complex interactions we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic is the resurgence of traditional gender roles in the family and the negative impact this has had on women’s participation in paid and unpaid labour. At the beginning we saw governments mandate work-from-home policies, significant physical and social distancing rules and urge people not to travel or visit with anyone outside of their home. While these mandates have been used to curb the spread of COVID-19, they have had widespread social, economic, and health-related impacts.

Valuable child care resources including schools, day cares, nurseries and extracurricular activities are no longer available. Healthcare services are overwhelmed and resources are constantly being diverted to the emergency at hand, leading many dependent and ill elderly folks to experience gaps in critical social and physical care (1*). Many families face new challenges as their daily lives have shifted to exist exclusively within the confines of their homes, especially with added childcare and caregiving responsibilities. This stress can now perhaps be called “chronic” as many provinces across what is currently known as Canada are in the midst of another lockdown.

The pandemic has intensified previous gender and economic inequalities between men and women both at work and at home. Paid work and care work are no longer separated by space and the nine to five clock, leading to more time performing unpaid care duties and less time dedicated to paid work. Parents around the world are experiencing more economic and domestic responsibility than ever, blurring the boundary between work and family. According to the Time to Care report, released in January 2020 by Oxfam, before the Coronavirus pandemic, unpaid labour disproportionately fell to women by a long shot and this has only been exacerbated by the pandemic (2*).

When kitchen tables become classrooms and offices double as play spaces - domestic work and childcare are in the spotlight. Theoretically, men’s increased exposure to domestic and childcare tasks should make unpaid work more equal among heterosexual partners. But this has not been the reality. All parents experienced increased stress associated with the coronavirus restrictions, but women remain disproportionately ‘burdened’ with unpaid care work, forcing mothers to wear many hats, now working as teachers, cleaners, household managers, and cooks (3*, 4*). Single parents are facing even greater difficulties balancing all these responsibilities. Within the first 4 months, employment in women with young children dropped significantly, highlighting how difficult it is to “do it all” and the tradeoffs women are making between paid and unpaid labour during this time.

The second shift

Despite women becoming a significant and essential part of the paid workforce over the years, women have taken on the majority of unpaid work at home even prior to the pandemic. Beginning in the mid-1950s, there was a dramatic and consistent increase in women’s participation in the paid economy up until the 1990s (5*, 6*). Historically, Black women have the highest labour market participation regardless of age, marital status, or children. Black women in the United States (U.S.) had been doing the housework of white families for decades at this point. This increase, especially from the 1970s and on, was mainly white women entering the workforce.

Despite the increase in paid work time, women were still responsible for the bulk of housework and childcare. This pattern of work is coined by Arlie Horchschild as ‘the second shift’, wherein women do paid work during the day and come home to do another job, or a ‘second shift’, of housework and caregiving without monetary compensation (6*). This second shift may be even more taxing for women who’s paid work already involves caregiving and house work. Today, Black women, Indigenous women and women of colour (BIWOC) make up the majority of paid domestic and caregiver roles in the U.S. While the emergence of ‘the second shift’ took hold almost 4 decades ago, this trend still persists today with women assuming the primary role in providing both direct and indirect unpaid care and routine housework (7*, 8*).

A common solution to increase women’s access to work and income stability is allowing flexible work hours; however, across various countries including Germany, the UK and the US, women working at home or part-time pre-COVID-19 performed less paid work and more unpaid care work compared to when they worked at the office (4*, 9*). Ultimately, this left them feeling like their workload had increased overall as opposed to achieving a sustainable balance (10*). Flexible working hours treats a symptom and not a cause.

Among heterosexual couples, the option to work remotely (even prior to COVID-19) often emphasizes a traditional labour division based in normative gender roles (11*, 12*). Women end up spending up to three extra hours on child and housework, while men tend to add overtime work hours (13*). Providing flexible working hours implies that women will maintain unpaid care work just the same. Employers frame flexible working hours as a privilege – now you can manage your home and your job during whatever hours you like, no boundaries! Without any clear boundaries between paid work hours and hours dedicated to unpaid work, women often sacrifice paid work because their unpaid duties are all around them. The hours of paid work contributed by women has increased significantly over previous decades with little change in domestic care work. Why are we working around unrealistic care expectations of women instead of supporting mens’ role in the care economy?

Impact of COVID-19 on home and childcare demands

During the Coronavirus pandemic there has been a global shift in housework and childcare responsibilities, with parents across the world increasing their total time dedicated toward unpaid labour (14*-16*). While unpaid care load increased simultaneously, most women still felt that the load was not shared equally (3*, 17*). Research by Oxfam Canada in June 2020 showed that 43% of women across five countries reported feeling more depressed, anxious, overworked, or ill due to increased care responsibilities because of the coronavirus pandemic (17*). Several weeks into the pandemic, more than half of the 3,558 women surveyed spent more time cleaning, cooking, washing, and caring for children and family members (17*). It is clear that the pandemic has exacerbated previous traditional gender roles in terms of childcare and housework responsibilities.

In the U.S., mothers are taking on an increased responsibility of unpaid work at the expense of their paid working hours (3*). Alternatively, fathers’ work hours remain stable, continuing to put in a typical 40-hour work week (3*). In Australian dual-earner, heterosexual couples, men showed a 64% increase in active childcare, compared to women who increased their time by 50%. Regardless, women continue to dedicate significantly more absolute time towards home-school and care tasks for children at five hours per day on average, compared to men contributing three and a half (14*). These differences were similar in house-work hours as well. Notably, both parents felt more unsatisfied with the labour and responsibility division in their home during the pandemic. Across five countries, only 30% of women felt that the work was evenly shared, compared to men who generally felt it was equal (3*). This difference in feelings of satisfaction between heterosexual partners is a function of the unconscious social norms and gender biases that we internalize.

Research from the University of Georgia revealed that most heterosexual couples from the U.S. adopted traditional gender roles during work-from-home orders (3*, 15*). Wives were primarily responsible for taking care of the children and home, in addition to maintaining remote paid work. In this model, the husband would step in during important and/or non-negotiable work times for the wife (15*). Despite this being the primary method of choice for the heterosexual couples in this study, those who chose more egalitarian practices felt they performed better at their paid job and decreased their psychological stress. The egalitarian practices included alternating days (only possible when both parents are still able to work outside the home and take turns staying home), ‘mini shifts’ (allowed parents to take sole responsibility for shorter periods of time during the day when both working remotely), and fully outsourced childcare. This data indicates that a clear separation between paid work and family tasks is beneficial for the entire family (15*). These positive outcomes are found in separate research that suggests better health and performance outcomes when a person is able to maintain clear work and family boundaries (18*, 19*). This suggests that both men and women can be responsible for child and home care through different modalities and compensations for work.

Teaching neurodiverse children from home

The COVID-19 pandemic has led women and gender diverse folks with children to take on the additional labour of teaching. While many teachers have gone above and beyond to ensure their students’ continued success in this new landscape, online learning has come with its challenges. These challenges are exacerbated for neurodiverse children who may have a harder time understanding the rapidly changing situation and adapting to online learning (37). An elementary school special education teacher highlights the struggle of making online learning effective for neurodiverse students: “[...] what works in general education doesn't work for special education students. New concepts must be broken down into manageable parts, taught in isolation and practiced a lot. That's really hard to do in digital learning, even if you're a terrific teacher.” This means that parents have to take a more active role in teaching their neurodiverse children (38).

The pandemic has also triggered or worsened anxiety for many. Anxiety is a common co-occurring condition among the neurodiverse community. An estimated 20% of dyslexic and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) individuals experience anxiety. These estimated rates are even higher among individuals, and more specifically females on the autism spectrum (39). This anxiety has only worsened with fear and worry regarding COVID-19 and associated policies. For many neurodiverse folks, especially children, routines are essential to managing anxiety and maladaptive behaviours. The disruption of day-to-day routines resulting from COVID-19 while stressful for most of us, can be extremely disrupting for neurodiverse individuals and for families with neurodiverse children. Parents of neurodiverse children face greater challenges developing new routines for their children and themselves, with teaching, caregiving, and working from home having to be managed in the same space.

Women in the paid economy – Why don’t we care as much?

Egalitarian partnerships work great for those who have flexible working days and/or hours and have a dual-earner partnership. What about single parenthood? What about essential care service workers? What about the working poor? These roles are predominantly held by women and do not offer the same options of dividing care work (2*, 16*). Single parents and individuals working for less than a living wage have the least amount of outsourced support and greatest amount of unpaid care responsibilities. Women with children who are laid off or unable to work remotely may find childcare a significant barrier to seeking new employment. In Canada, by May 2020, employment was down 12% for single mothers compared to 7% for partnered mothers (20*). Women who live with their care recipients endure the greatest challenge in maintaining paid work (7*). Further, racialized women in these roles are taking on the largest burden of care during this pandemic in both Canada and the U.S. (1*, 16*, 17*). Racialized people are also more likely to live with multiple generations of family, increasing care burden regardless of age (7*).

The long-standing structural inequalities that disadvantage structurally vulnerable women lead them to risk their personal and families’ health while continuing to provide underpaid care services (16*, 21*, 22*). In Canada, ethnic minority groups were more likely than white participants to report increases in care work. Further, Indigenous respondents were 3 times more likely than white respondents to report giving up searching for paid work to care for their home and family (17*). Women who have reduced hours at work to care for dependents are likely to face long-term employment penalties. An RBC Economic Report released in July, revealed that women’s labour participation was at 55% in April - the lowest it has been since the 1980s (20*).

Women invisibly support both the market economy and their state (country) by providing free and/or cheap labour as well as unpaid care for vulnerable peoples such as children and elderly dependents. Women around the world make up 48% of the paid labour force; however, this hides the contribution of unpaid care demands (23*). Women’s unpaid care work adds an estimated US $10.8 trillion to the global economy, which is still likely an underestimate. This means that if all women aged 15 and above were paid minimum wage (converted into relative U.S. dollars depending on the country) for each hour of unpaid care work they complete, they would have made a collective $10.8 trillion (23*). Unpaid care work is purposefully left out when calculating gross domestic product (GDP), which emphasizes the idea that this work carries little value. Known as ‘shadow labour’, women provide resources to society because public care infrastructure and spending on social services is lacking. This includes a wide variety of services from affordable or subsidized child care to housing services. Women continually fill in the care-need gaps at the expense of personal economic opportunities and psychological well-being.

Even within the paid economy, women contribute 80% of domestic and care work. This type of work is associated with low job security or protection, lack of wage protection, no work hour limitations and no social security (7*, 22*). Importantly, the jobs that lack worker protections such as service jobs, predominantly employ low-income, BIWOC, and immigrant women (24*). Thus, women who work in these jobs have a higher exposure risk to viral infection and less security and health care access should they fall ill or become injured (25*).

Many recognize this gap in work, time and pay for women as ‘a broken system’ – however; this rederick (i.e. buzz word or half-truth) ignores the ‘hidden’ goals of the capitalist system that rules the global economy. Specifically, “the current economy seeks to exploit female paid and unpaid labour to generate huge revenues for society and wealth for the existing, mainly male, elite” (2*). This system actively exploits and maintains traditional misogynistic and sexist ideas and takes away the power of women and girls across the globe. We look to women and girls to support us emotionally, mentally and physically, but do not value this work if it indeed comes from them. It’s a catch 22; without you there is no one capable of taking proper care of those around you, but your work doesn’t add enough value for it to be recognized and appropriately appreciated. Recent studies show investing in care sectors can lead to decreased poverty, reduced gender employment gaps and improve education and health outcomes versus investment in other sectors (26*).

Why should we care?

Care work includes a large variety of people and situations. Children, elderly folks, and those with physical, mental and developmental disabilities all require care work. Additionally, more ‘mundane’ tasks such as cooking, cleaning, planning, washing, mending, fetching food and water (whether in a grocery store or foraging) are a staple part of everyday functioning (7*, 23*). If these basic needs were not met, there would be a significant burden on our communities, health care and economy.

The disproportionate burden of unpaid care work not only robs women of earned money, but steals their time as well, a concept referred to as ‘time-poverty’ (23*). Time poverty leaves women at a disadvantage because they do not enjoy proper rest or leisure. ‘Radical self-care’, a concept that prioritizes rest and personal down time, is currently going viral on the internet. However, this concept is just that, an idea. Advocating for radical self-care must acknowledge the intersections of systemic barriers that women face when societal norms see care work as a women’s ‘natural’ job. Limited childcare options, increased domestic responsibilities, and fear of losing more paid work time than has already been sacrificed means women may not be able to find the time to attend to their physical and mental health, or participate in political and social life.

The economic fallout from the pandemic has resulted in a regressive effect on gender equality. Women taking on more care duties at home during the COVID-19 pandemic makes them more vulnerable to falling out of the workforce. Women account for the majority of jobs lost globally, and disproportionately carry the increased burden of unpaid labour (4*, 24*, 28*). Employment has social, psychological, and financial benefits that impact health. Previous studies have identified strong relationships between the labour market and population health trajectories, where worsening employment is strongly associated with worsening health (27*).

Women may delay or forego secondary, university- and college-level education as well as employment as they are needed at home. This is especially harmful to girls in low-income countries who are forced to stop going to school because of closures (29*). Employment and education are essential to the personal, financial, and social well-being of women and furthers gender equality. For example, a report by the World Bank in 2018 revealed that women who have a secondary education can earn up to twice as much compared to women with no education (30*). Those with a tertiary education (any schooling past high school) can earn up to 4 times as much. This highlights that each level of education increases earning potential exponentially. These differences are even more exaggerated when looking at low-income countries (30*).

With higher education, women increase their personal earning potential, increase labour force participation (especially full-time work) and reduce poverty through direct reinvestment into their household and communities. We risk widening the economic and social power gap that still exists between men, women and gender diverse folks if the importance of education is forgotten and ignored (30*). Furthermore, if women continue to take on the brunt of unpaid, at-home care work, this type of work will continue to be undervalued and remain a barrier to income access. Distributing care work equally among men and women within heterosexual couples will help bring attention to the importance and challenges of care duties at home. While no data concerning the division of labour among same-sex couples throughout the pandemic is available, previous data suggests that both perceived and objective unpaid labour division is more equal. However; inequality begins to emerge when one partner begins to earn a higher income. When one partner has a higher income, the other partner will take on a greater share of household duties, which becomes more pronounced if there are children in the home (31*-33*). This suggests that much of Western society, including paid work, caters to single-earner families.

A regression to gender roles is also dangerous for those who are gender diverse because gender norms are based in stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Traditional views on masculinity and femininity are harmful to those who do not identify as cisgender as it reinforces cisnormativity. Cisnormativity is the assumption that all people are cisgender. This leads to transgender and non-binary folks facing discrimination and violence for not fitting into stereotypical ideas of what it means to be a “man” or “woman.” This has serious implications as gender diverse people in Canada are already more likely to have poor mental health, to have seriously contemplated suicide, and to have experienced physical or sexual assault. This unequal expectation of care responsibilities only maintains and exacerbates harmful gender and economic inequities that women and gender diverse folks have been fighting against for centuries (34).

Steps to a progressive recovery

The COVID-19 pandemic response remains gender-neutral, despite historical viral spreads showing that a blanket response is harmful and ineffective (35*). Women who are racialized, neurodiverse, low-income, single parents, gender diverse, and disabled are among the most vulnerable in a pandemic (4*, 16*, 35*). As countries begin to rebuild and restructure, the enormous reliance on unpaid and underpaid care work should be in the forefront of our minds. Policy response to COVID-19 has shown us how important care work is to maintain a healthy and economically prosperous society. Increasing value in the care economy is a crucial step in achieving gender equality. Progressive recovery must include recognition, reduction and redistribution of care work from women to men and from individual families to the state (4*, 7*, 35*, 36).

  • Recognize: include gender disaggregated data and an intersectional lens to inform policy change. Disaggregated data means breaking down data into detailed sub-categories such as gender, race, sexual identity, level of education, etc. When data can be more specific, we can then more accurately evaluate how each of those sub-categories, alone and together, affect the outcomes measured. This will help to recognize the economic and social value of unpaid care work and identify who is doing the majority of this work

  • Reduce: decrease the amount of care work individuals perform by investment in public infrastructure such as transport, clean water, electricity, cooking equipment and accessible childcare.

  • Redistribute: share work between households and between women and men more equally. This includes challenging gender norms and stereotypes.

It is critical for researchers to investigate the consequences of disproportionate unpaid care work on the regressive effects of gender equality and how this intersection directly impacts women’s and gender diverse folks' health. Understanding how social factors, which have been impacted by the pandemic, influence health outcomes is crucial for understanding the lasting impact of the pandemic on population health. Importantly, women cannot shoulder the load of this activist work alone. Socially, we expect more of women, specifically BIWOC and gender diverse folks, than is acknowledged or possible. It is imperative that white women take action in acknowledging that their experience is inherently different from gender diverse folks and BIWOC. white women must apply an intersectional feminist lens when analyzing the gendered COVID-19 impacts. Further, cis men’s allyship is required in creating a future that prioritizes equality for structurally vulnerable women and future generations.

Commemorating the efforts of frontline fighters of COVID-19 for our safety by reading about them here.

Some of the data available and used to inform this post compares women and men. The term “women” is used when referring to cisgender women or where research did not specifically mention the gender identity of women included.

*These sources do not specify the gender identity of the women included. Historical representation leads us to believe only cisgender women were included.

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