Household Divisions of Labor and Care Work in Times of COVID-19: Empirical Lessons from Hungary

By Éva Fodor, Anikó Gregor, Júlia Koltai and Eszter Kováts

The Gendered Effects of COVID-19: A Deluge of Social Problems

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic immediately brought up several questions and problems regarding the gendered impact of consequential measures worldwide. As a consequence of global neoliberal structures accompanied with austerity policies and intensified state withdrawal from the public service sectors, we have been witnessing the contradictions between capital and care around the world (Fraser 2016) and how gendered inequalities have become more than evident in the coronavirus situation. Underfinanced health care and social service sectors, where the majority of workers are women, face the enormous pressure of dealing with new cases day by day. The imposed lockdown measures and restrictions on access to healthcare services have hindered many women from getting safe access to medical examinations. It is not an exaggeration to say that it made the practice of reproductive rights unviable in some parts of the world with the support of conservative political forces (see Glenza 2020). 

The lockdown measures also highlighted the well-known global structures of formal and informal care. Thousands of migrant domestic and institutional care workers, mostly women, moved back to their country of origin. Consequently, a considerable amount of care work remained fully or partially unsatisfied and showed how the social and care services of wealthier countries and families rely much more on migrant care workers than they might have thought. Furthermore, numerous reports from the field raised alarms that social isolation has intensified domestic violence against women and girls (see UN Women 2020). The gendered consequences of COVID-19 were also apparent in changes to the terrain of formal and informal employment: women were hit harder by unemployment, the shortening of working hours, and wage loss compared to men (ILO 2020). Within Europe, among Southern and Eastern European women, the risk was even higher than among their Western counterparts, because the share of women working in sectors that are crucially endangered by the effects of COVID-19 is somewhat higher (ibid).

Out of these many potential social problems, we focused on the impact of COVID-19 and the different lockdown measures on changing patterns in the domestic division of labor and care work in Hungary. As a consequence of the pandemic, daycares, kindergartens, and schools were shut down in mid-March and many workplaces – where it was possible and which survived bankruptcy – switched to home office or home production mode. Meanwhile, the backbone family care takers of children, namely grandparents, and especially grandmothers, not only vanished because of the risk to their health, but, regardless their health condition, they required more help in everyday activities in social isolation from their children and grandchildren.

Our research aimed to answer the following questions: (1) How did the domestic division of labor within Hungarian households change during the pandemic? (2) Was there any change compared to those patterns that existed and were well-documented before the pandemic? (3) Along which factors can we detect any difference in the increase or decrease in time spent on household chores, childcare, or elderly care activities?

Photo: Balogh Zoltan/ MTI

Setting the Scene

In the last 30 years, Hungary has witnessed a turn from a socialist to an explicitly familialist (Rat & Szikra 2018) neoliberal gender regime (Walby 2011) in which elements of domestic (private) and public maternalism (Fodor & Glass 2011) are combined. Daily childcare institutions are universally available (and compulsory to attend) from the age of 3, but the coverage of daycares is concentrated mostly in bigger cities, the waiting lists are incredibly long, and their services require financial contribution from the parents. A remarkable proportion of mothers have raised concerns about the quality of these services, and their experience legitimizes their decision to instead stay at home with their children as long as they can (see Blaskó 2011). The demand for elderly care is even greater, however, the sector is hugely underfinanced (Gyarmati 2019), and there is no serious political interest in changing the situation. Employers usually do not consider the different care responsibilities of women, who usually work full-time (or even more); hence, tensions between paid work and family responsibilities are among the top problems of Hungarian women (Gregor & Kováts 2019). It is not a surprise then that in the context of a relatively underfinanced childcare sector and a practically non-existing elderly care sector, Hungarian men and women delegate care work responsibility mostly to the terrain of families, more precisely to women. Even in international comparison, Hungarian respondents share one of the most traditional attitudes towards gender roles in the EU (European Commission 2017). Although care work is seen as the primary (but not exclusive) role of women, Hungarian men also face increasing expectations to be present and caring fathers (see Makay & Spéder 2018; Takács 2019). In terms of practice, one can detect from national time scale surveys that the amount of time that Hungarian fathers spent with their children doubled between 1986 and 2009, and the time men spend on household activities increased by 43 percent. However, women still spend more than twice the time on similar activities, so the gender gap seems to be persistent (Harcsa 2014).

Research Design

To shed light on these old-new patterns of the gendered division of labor, we conducted an online pilot survey in Hungary between 6 and 14 April 2020. Since Hungary closed schools and childcare facilities on 13 March 2020 and instituted serious lockdown measures soon thereafter, our respondents had already been coping with their new circumstances for three weeks by the time of our survey. Our sample (N=1,966) is representative of high school and college-educated Hungarian internet users who raise children under 14 years of age in their households. (In late May 2020, we conducted another nation-wide telephone survey where we covered similar topics. The results are still under analysis.)

Main Findings

In accordance with our expectations, the volume of possible help in childcare activities coming from outside the household significantly dropped by 20 to 33 percent: parents had to rely much less on grandparents, other family members, and paid help during the isolation period. Because of this lack of help, the ratio of those saying that they cannot count on anyone for help in childcare doubled and amounted to 10 percent at the time of fieldwork. Women, lower educated respondents, and single parents were more likely to face childcare without any help.

It also not surprising that the majority of our respondents, 7 out of 10 of them, had experienced some kind of change in their working condition (like change in the schedule/shifts, location, amount of time), but home office remained in the minority: 47 percent of women and 31 percent of men reported it. Considering that this sample was class-biased to show full representation of the whole adult parent population, it might still be informative that, although much talk was sacrificed to home office in the press, the majority of our respondents were not affected by it.

We asked respondents to tell us whether their share of various domestic and childcare tasks has increased since the closure of schools and childcare institutions.  Respondents typically overestimate their contributions to such questions, especially when the overall work burden has clearly increased. Nevertheless, we were interested in differences among men and women in how they perceive this change.

Among at least high school educated heterosexual parents, men were significantly more likely to say that their share of domestic, child and elderly care work has increased since the closure of schools, while women claimed that their share remained stable or even decreased. In terms of childcare, for example, 45 percent of men felt that they were doing a more significant share of the work during the crisis than they did earlier, and only 38 percent of women claimed that they did. Because of this, the gender gap in doing household duties decreased by approximately 10 percent. This was true for domestic work and elderly care as well. The findings remained the same when we compared men and women who were similar in several important factors: education level, working for wages, age, urban or rural residence, and the number of children.

However, the gender gap decrease did not mean that gendered patterns disappeared and expectations towards more participation of men vanished: women were still five times more likely to agree with the statement of “It would be great if my partner did a greater share of childcare and household work” compared to men. Meanwhile, this life situation might have made men somewhat more sensitive towards the experienced and already well-documented tensions of women between care and paid work: while 8 out of 10 women reported tensions during the isolation, 6 out of 10 men felt the same. 

Closing Remarks

We do not know yet if these changes that we have detected will be permanent after the lockdown measures are revoked or if similar patterns will be reproduced during the possible next waves of the COVID pandemic. Our study has revealed that it is not impossible that, even in a country with quite rigid and traditional gender roles in practice, men could contribute more to childcare and household activities. Old social contracts and unequal deals might have a chance of being reconsidered. Of course, this cannot happen without forcing employers to get rid of their notions of the ideal worker without care responsibilities, and this step requires strong will from the state to regulate employers and undertake conflicts with the counter-interested actors. It is needless to say that in the case of a foreign-investment and foreign-capital-led country like Hungary, in which state politics have been relying upon neoliberal economic principles for decades, the scope of action is very much limited. Feminist solutions cannot turn a blind eye on the existing economic ties and unequal exchange of capital, profit, and resources between the wealthier core countries and the other regions exposed. Contradictions between capital and care are not distributed equally either globally or along social classes or gender groups. Therefore, transnationalism and transnational feminism must be the key to thinking about possible and sustainable solutions. 

A previous version of this blog entry has been published on the Gender & Society blog. The current piece is an extended and revised version of the original text and was presented in the Transnational Feminist Dialogues online series of the Margherita-von-Brentano-Zentrum at Freie Universität Berlin on 23 June 2020.

This article is part of the #DossierCorona thread #TransnationalFeminisms, which emerges from the online series “Transnational Feminist Dialogues in Times of Corona Crisis” organized by the Margherita von Brentano Center for Gender Studies at Freie Universität Berlin in cooperation with the MA Program Gender, Intersectionality and Politics at FU Berlin, Academy in Exile and Academics for Peace Germany.


References

Blaskó, Zsuzsa (2011): “Hároméves kor alatt mindenképpen megsínyli?” Interjús kutatás kisgyermekes anyák körében. [“Do They Suffer in Any Way Under the Age of Three?” Interview Research Among Mothers with Small Children] In Ildikó, Nagy and Tiborné Pongrácz (eds.) Szerepváltozások. Jelentés a nők és férfiak helyzetéről 2011. [Changing Roles: Report About the Situation of Women and Men]Budapest: TÁRKI – Nemzeti Erőforrás Minisztérium. 156–170. http://www.tarsadalomkutatas.hu/kkk.php?TPUBL-A-940/publikaciok/tpubl_a_940.pdf (Accessed: 6 July 2020)

European Commission (2017): “Gender Equality 2017”. Eurobarometer No. 465. Summary Report. https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/ResultDoc/download/DocumentKy/80678 (Accessed: 6 July 2020)

Fraser, Nancy (2016): “Contradictions of Capital and Care”. New Left Review 100: 99-117.

Glass, Christy and Éva Fodor (2011): “Public Maternalism Goes to Market: Recruitment, Hiring, and Promotion in Postsocialist Hungary”. Gender & Society 25(1): 5-26. DOI: 10.1177/0891243210390518

Glenza, Jessica (2020): “States Use Coronavirus to Ban Abortions, Leaving Women Desperate: ‘You Can’t Pause a Pregnancy’ ”. The Guardian. 30 April 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/30/us-states-ban-abortions-coronavirus-leave-women-desperate (Accessed: 6 July 2020)

Gregor, Anikó and Eszter Kováts (2019): “Work-Life: Balance? Tensions between Care and Paid Work in the Lives of Hungarian Women”. Socio.hu Special Issue 2019. 91-115. DOI: 10.18030/socio.hu.2019en.91

Gyarmati, Andrea (2019): Idősödés, idősellátás Magyarországon. [Aging and Elderly Care in Hungary]. Research paper. Budapest: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. https://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/budapest/15410.pdf (Accessed: 6 July 2020)

Harcsa István (2014): Családi kohéziók. [Family Cohesions]. Budapest: Central Statistical Office. http://www.ksh.hu/docs/hun/xftp/idoszaki/pdf/muhelytanulmanyok5.pdf (Last access: 6 July 2020)

ILO (2020): ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the World of Work. Fifth edition. 30 June 2020. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_749399.pdf (Accessed: 6 July 2020)

Makay, Zsuzsa and Zsolt Spéder (2018): “Fatherhood: Parenthood and Family Roles for Men”. In Monostori Judit, Őri Péter and Spéder Zsolt (eds.) Demographic Portrait of Hungary 2018. Budapest: KSH. 67-84. https://www.demografia.hu/en/publicationsonline/index.php/demographicportrait/article/view/952/724 (Accessed: 6 July 2020)

Rat, Cristina and Dorottya Szikra (2018): “Family Policies and Social Inequalities in Central and Eastern Europe: A Comparative Analysis of Hungary, Poland and Romania between 2005 and 2015”. In Guðný B. Eydal and Tine Rostgaard(eds.) Handbook of Family Policy. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.223-235. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4337/9781784719340.00026

Takács, Judit (2019): “How Involved are Involved Fathers in Hungary? Exploring Caring Masculinities in a Post-Socialist Context”. Families, Relationships and Societies. Fast Track Articles No. 12. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/204674319X15592179267974

UN Women (2020): COVID-19 and Ending Violence Against Women and Girls. Issue paper. https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/issue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls-en.pdf?la=en&vs=5006 (Accessed: 6 July 2020)

Walby, Sylvia (2011): The Future of Feminism. Cambridge: Polity Press.


Éva Fodor is a sociologist teaching in the Department of Gender Studies at the Central European University. CEU funded this project.

Anikó Gregor works as a sociologist at ELTE University, Budapest, Faculty of Social Sciences. Currently, she is a research fellow at Freie Universität Berlin (Academy in Exile program).

Júlia Koltai is a researcher at the Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences Centre of Excellence and Assistant Professor of Sociology at ELTE University. Currently she is a visiting professor at the Central European University.

Eszter Kováts is a PhD student in Political Science, ELTE University, Budapest.


Further articles in the thread #transnationalfeminisms of the series #DossierCorona on TRAFO:

Sabina García Peter, Nina Lawrenz and Tanja Wälty, Introducing #DossierCorona #TransnationalFeminisms, 1 July 2020.

Eliska Bujokova, Rewriting Histories of Care in the Times of Corona, 9 July 2020.

Vidisha Mishra, COVID-19, Technology, and the Future of Care Work, 15 July 2020.


Citation: Éva Fodor, Anikó Gregor, Júlia Koltai and Eszter Kováts, Household Divisions of Labor and Care Work in Times of COVID-19: Empirical Lessons from Hungary, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.07.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24661.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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