Pandemic has increased likelihood of female breadwinners

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The pandemic made households where only one parent works far more common than before, (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

The number of married couples in the United States and the United Kingdom with only one working adult has increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study, but the divide is being driven more by earning potential than by gender. 

The study, published March 16 in Gender, Work & Organization, analyzed longitudinal panels of 2,186 couples from the Understanding Society COVID‐19 survey in the United Kingdom and 2,718 couples from the Current Population Survey in the United States. The researchers assessed how couples' work patterns have changed during the pandemic, how changes to their work patterns have varied depending on socioeconomic status, and whether the pandemic has made human capital — or the skills a person has to perform labor — a more important determinant of couples' work patterns than gender. 

With the ongoing pandemic disrupting the workforce in unprecedented ways, researchers Yang Hu of Lancaster University and Yue Qian of the University of British Columbia felt a lot could be learned from examining how economic concerns might trump gender roles. Their research is among the first to look at the economic impact of the pandemic on couples as opposed to individuals.

"People often weather and coordinate their responses to the pandemic as a family," Qian said. "Therefore, it is crucial to understand the impact of the pandemic on family collectives rather than individuals."

According to the economic principle of household specialization, couples divide labor along lines that would maximize their economic standing, meaning that the partner with the greatest earning potential will spend more time doing paid work. This would be determined by which partner had the highest level of education or who specialized in a more lucrative career. However, gender research has shown that this isn't always the case in heterosexual relationships — often, men's employment is prioritized over women's, regardless of which partner has the higher earning potential. 

The panel design of the surveys allowed researchers to compare couples' work patterns before and during the pandemic. The sample was restricted to heterosexual couples between the ages of 25 and 59. Couples were classified as having no work; being marginally employed, or working one to 19 hours a week; employed part time, or 20 to 34 hours a week; or employed full time. They also noted the gendered makeup of working partners, including which couples had the man or the woman as the sole worker.

The researchers focused on the United States and the United Kingdom because of the similarities they share as liberal welfare regimes, Hu said. In both countries, the pandemic led to more couples having a sole-worker model, and the prevalence of dual workers and male primary workers declined. There was also a large increase of couples with neither partner working, from 3% to 15% in the U.K., and from 5% to 11% in the U.S. 

The likelihood of the woman being the main worker doubled from 9% to 20% in the U.K., but only increased from 10% to 13% in the U.S. Hu said this may be because stricter lockdowns in the United Kingdom left low-skilled workers with fewer work options compared to their American counterparts. 

"This result suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated preexisting socioeconomic inequalities," Qian said. "It remains to be seen whether couples in the bottom socioeconomic stratum were only temporarily out of work by tracing their long‐term trajectory of economic recovery."

The research also took into account the education levels of the couples, because that is a key factor in one's earning potential and likelihood to remain employed throughout the pandemic: Highly educated couples, or those with at least a bachelor's degree in the U.S. and a tertiary degree in the U.K., are more likely to be able to do their jobs remotely and more likely to have higher pre-pandemic income levels. Couples with two less-educated partners were more likely to have neither partner working during the pandemic, with an increase from 5% to 26% for U.K. couples and from 6% to 17% for U.S. couples.

However, if the partners differed in their levels of education, decisions about who would continue to work were determined more by human capital than by gender roles, especially in the U.K. If the woman in the couple was more educated than the man, that couple was 16 percentage points more likely to become a female main-worker couple than a male main-worker couple. For Americans, the likelihood increased by seven percentage points. If the male was more educated, he was more likely to be the sole breadwinner in either country.

"Couples had to make the best economic decisions to survive the pandemic," Hu said. 

The study looks specifically at the pandemic affected employment, but the researchers said it's important to understand how the division of household labor may put women in a "double bind." Some women may have taken on the primary breadwinner role but are still responsible for the majority of the housework and child-rearing. 

The increase in the female main-worker model was more limited among low-income families than wealthier families, which suggests that the pre-pandemic economic status played a role in how couples navigated employment during the pandemic. 

The long-term economic impact of the pandemic and these changes in labor division within families have yet to be seen and will require more research, according to Hu. 

"There is a slight spark of optimism about changes to gender roles within couples," Hu said. "But as researchers, we're certainly going to need to keep tracking the consequences of this pandemic on families."

The study "Couples' changing work patterns in the United Kingdom and the United States during the COVID‐19 pandemic," published March 16 in Gender, Work & Organization, was authored by Yue Qian, University of British Columbia; and Yang Hu, Lancaster University.

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