Skip to main content

Chris Schneider and Catherine MacLellan share their divided chore list in Peach River, Alta., on May 26, 2020. A new survey suggests Canadian women are still doing more around the house, but men have stepped up their contribution.handout (selfie)/Handout

More dishes, messy bathrooms and extra meal-planning – another burden courtesy of COVID-19 has been the extra household chores that pile up when families live together around the clock.

When the pandemic started, experts worried that the lockdown might reverse years of progress that saw men take on a more equal share of traditional housework and child care duties.

But a new survey by researchers at McMaster University and the University of Toronto suggests that hasn’t happened: Canadian women are still doing more, but men have also stepped up their contribution at home. The study suggests that the gender division of domestic duties in Canada has even become slightly more equal since the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 forced everyone to stay home – especially if you ask fathers.

That’s the one big caveat – the not-so-small matter of perspective. In keeping with prepandemic studies, men are significantly more likely to think the household duties have become more equal than women, although Canadian mothers and fathers are closer in agreement around parenting duties. The perception gap is wider for tasks such as cleaning and laundry, with men being twice as likely as women to say the job is shared equally.

Still, Canadian fathers are covering more of their share than U.S. dads, according to the lead author of the study, Kevin Shafer, the director of Canadian studies at Brigham Young University in Utah, who also has an affiliation with McMaster in Hamilton. The study surveyed 1,249 Canadian parents in early May. Its findings are similar to an identical survey completed by U.S. researchers that also found the equal division of household labour among American parents had slightly narrowed during the pandemic.

While Canadian women still perform a disproportionate amount of chores and caregiving duties, the gap between men and women has been shrinking, helped along by societal changes such as more mothers entering the work force and more fathers taking parental leave. In a Statistics Canada survey published in February and based on 2017 data, half of Canadian couples reported equal sharing of dishes, grocery shopping and organizing the social plans for the household. A prescient U.S. study published earlier this year also found that when fathers work at home they take care of more domestic tasks.

“You could easily imagine the situation becoming less equal, with all the household and work responsibilities coming together in the same place,” said Dr. Shafer. The differences in perceptions around equal sharing, he suggested, may be because fathers have stepped up with more weekly duties such as grocery shopping – or more fun ones such as playing with the children, while mothers are still more likely to be covering labour-intensive jobs such as laundry and school work. Sometimes, he suggested, it’s not a question of fathers stepping up, but mothers stepping back.

Dr. Shafer noted that the research can’t predict whether the trend toward equality will hold once the pandemic is over, especially if more women end up working from home long-term. But he said an increasing trend, particularly among younger couples, is to make decisions around chores not based on traditional gender roles but what is practical.

While working at home and juggling child care and school for four young children, the Canadian researcher said he and his partner have tried to draw an equal line between those tougher jobs. They each cover their own laundry and the dirty clothes for two children, and the home-schooling is split by child, and, sometimes, by subject matter based on the parent’s skills. If one person cooks dinner, the other usually cleans up. Right now, as appears to be the pattern for many families, he also ventures out for the grocery shopping, a task that has become high-risk during the pandemic. He and his wife decided it would be harder on the children if their mom got sick.

In Peace River, AB., Catherine MacLellan, a teacher, and Chris Schneider, who works for human resources at the local pulp mill, have a chores list equally dividing duties posted on the fridge. A suggestion from a pre-marital counselor in advance of their wedding (now postponed because of the pandemic), it has come in handy as they juggle work at home. “I have stepped up my game,” said Mr. Schneider, to keep his work space at the kitchen table from getting too messy. “And I have taken it down a notch,” said Ms. MacLellan, about her cleaning standards. “I think we are being more patient with each other."

This doesn’t mean everyone has it easy – especially mothers, who, in addition to working, are more likely to be overseeing the school work, arguably the most stressful new chore created by the COVID-19 lockdown.

In interviews, mothers admitted to struggling with the sheer sprawl of mess in the house with everyone working or studying at home. They also noted some tension over different definitions of what counts as clean, and the exhausting mental task of just trying to keep the day organized. When it came to parenting, “organizing” had the widest perception gap in study: just 29.5 per cent of mothers thought the task was divided equally, compared to 52 per cent of fathers.

In Vancouver, Tanya Hayes said that while working up to 12 hours a day as an export logistics manager for a grain company, she is still overseeing most of the cleaning and nightly meals, although her husband “is good with the dishes,” and usually handles the grocery shopping.

But they have different approaches to the school work – while her partner, who was recently laid off from his job, often spends time in the garden or cleaning the garage, letting their two daughters, 9 and 11, handle it independently, Ms. Hayes is a more direct supervisor. She researched how to keep the house sanitized, and spends extra time cleaning the doorknobs and surfaces. She also feels the weight of worrying about her own aging parents, including making sure they have enough food in the house each week.

“I feel good in the morning, but at the end of the day I am pretty wiped out,” she said. “I have more things on my mind now.” But sometimes, she conceded, “I just do more than I should,” without delegating jobs. “I don’t like to sit still.”

At times, though, backing off has proven more fruitful. For instance, the other day, while on a conference call, she had to wave away her 9-year-old who wanted an omelette. About half and hour later, her daughter returned with an omelette in hand, after learning how to make it from a YouTube video.

Her daughters, Ms. Hayes noted, are becoming more independent even with both parents home. Perhaps, for many families, the children are a previously untapped labour force to share the domestic load even more.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.